Construction firms get tips on tapping Govt aid schemes

In a spartan room lit by fluorescent lights, a group of middle-aged men sit in a row, waiting for their names to be called.

They walk tentatively to a table where officers from the Building Construction Authority (BCA) are seated.

The men, mostly owners of small construction firms, listen intently as the officers talk about government grants aimed at boosting productivity.

Before long, their brows furrow and they look confused.

Mr Tan Lian Guan, managing director of Leong Hin Huat Contractor, asks in Mandarin: "How do I find more about the grants on the Internet? I just don't know where to start."

He says he wants to buy machines which reduce the load on workers at his firm, which specialises in the demolition of buildings.

The BCA officers suggest he buy equipment which can hack walls with less manual labour and advise Mr Tan how to apply for grants which can subsidise the cost of the machines.

This is the construction industry's "meet the people session".

The Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) and BCA have been organising these meetings since December 2011 to help construction bosses navigate the myriad government schemes they can tap to improve efficiency.

Scal president Ho Nyok Yong said that bosses of smaller firms are the target audience.

Unlike larger companies, smaller firms do not have designated staff put in charge of looking into various government aid schemes.

Many bosses end up confused.

They also find the information on the schemes hard to digest since it is mostly in English. Most of them are proficient only in Chinese.

"So we thought why not hold regular meetings with BCA. What better way than to hear it from the horse's mouth?" said Dr Ho.

The sessions are growing popular, with around 100 firms having attended them since December 2011. Scal hopes to reach out to another 200 by holding one session every week by early next year, instead of once a fortnight now.

Dr Ho said more firms are applying for government grants after hearing about them at the meetings.

Some 3,000 construction firms have received $134.6 million from the Government since 2010 to boost productivity.

The meetings, held at Scal's office in Bukit Merah, are kept informal to make participants more relaxed. They mingle over coffee and snacks while waiting to speak to BCA officers.

Representatives of firms spend about half an hour with each of the two teams of officers.

One team is in charge of talking about employee-upgrading schemes, while the other shares details about government grants which can be used to buy labour-saving equipment.

The bosses speak in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Hokkien as they talk about rising costs because of higher foreign levies and the labour crunch. Officers then suggest solutions.

Some participants are eager to take the advice. Mr Melvin Jee, whose firm Air Bright does electrical installations, said: "As long as the schemes can help me to save cost, I am willing to try."

But other bosses need more convincing.

Mr Lye Kian Siong, director of People's Construction, said his older Indian construction workers are unwilling to attend skill-upgrading courses as they are less educated and not confident of passing the tests.

Husband and wife Lim Sin Ming and Penny Poh, who run a window and door installation firm Aik Heng Contracts and Services, said it was hard to heed BCA's calls to cut down on manpower because their line of business is labour-intensive.

"How can you get a machine to install a window?" said Mr Lim.

But at the end of the meetings, confusion is usually replaced with smiles.

However, some remain worried.

Mr Chew Chon Chua, managing director of Global Excel Construction, said: "I will have to find some way to raise money to buy better machinery. I don't know if I will succeed, but I have to try. If not, I will be left behind."

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