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Where the Jobs Are: Going green and high-tech, construction sector draws youth who bring plans on paper to life

In the sixth instalment of TODAY's Where the Jobs Are series, we focus on the construction sector, which is looking to overhaul its image of menial jobs to one that is now being pushed to new heights by technology.

Where the Jobs Are: Going green and high-tech, construction sector draws youth who bring plans on paper to life

After graduating from the National University of Singapore in 2012, Ms Danilah Norahim entered the construction industry as a site supervisor. While this was her dream, her entrance to the sector was not smooth-sailing.

As fresh graduates and other young Singaporeans face a challenging job market amid the economic downturn, TODAY is running an eight-part weekly Where the Jobs Are series, shining a spotlight on sectors that may be overlooked but are offering interesting opportunities.

In the sixth instalment, we focus on the construction sector, which is looking to overhaul its image of menial jobs to one that is now being pushed to new heights by technology.

  • Construction has long been seen as a sector that is labour-intensive, demands long hours and pays poorly, employers say
  • This is untrue, argue some young professionals, who were drawn by technological advancements and the push towards sustainability
  • They say they are driven by the pleasure of seeing drawings, models come to life

 

SINGAPORE — Ms Danilah Norahim’s curiosity about construction projects was piqued as a child when she went overseas with her family and got to see architectural marvels such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

By the time she was in junior college, she knew that she wanted to work in the engineering field.

After she graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2012, Ms Danilah entered the construction industry as a site supervisor.

While this was her dream, her entrance to the sector was not smooth-sailing.

Being small in stature, her presence at construction sites often surprised those around her.

“Construction is a male-dominated industry, which may pose some challenges for me as I try to climb the ladder,” said the 31-year-old.

“I have met many people in my career who were shocked upon seeing me on-site in the hot sun,” she said. “They associate women with office people, in the air-conditioned comforts of an office.”

After six years as a site supervisor, she moved to Tiong Seng Contractors, where she is now a planning engineer, a managerial role where she spends her time both in the office and at construction sites.

She schedules activities at worksites and liaises with different agencies involved in construction projects, among other responsibilities. At present, she is working on two projects: A water pipeline for PUB, the national water agency, and an MRT station on the Thomson-East Coast Line.

Ms Danilah, who declined to state her salary, is among four young professionals interviewed by TODAY who are making their mark on the construction sector, which is becoming increasingly high-technology.

Employers said technology in the sector has advanced markedly over the last decade, allowing firms to streamline their processes not just in the construction process but in managing manpower and detecting flaws and faults.

They added that foreign competition is intense in the sector, and that there is a need for more Singaporeans to step up to the plate.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) told TODAY that the construction sector employed an estimated 116,100 residents in December last year. 

Nearly one-fifth of employed residents in the construction sector were below age 35 in June last year, the agency said. 

These figures exclude those in built environment consultancy services.

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TECHNOLOGY A BOON TO SECTOR

With the advancements of technology in the sector and the ever-quickening push for environmental sustainability, new roles have been created over the last five to 10 years.

As a sustainability manager, one of Mr Pang Zi Hao’s main tasks is to ensure that the air-conditioning and chilling systems in buildings and facilities are energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable.

The 31-year-old, from energy services company CBM Solutions, said that this role emerged only in the last decade.

By revamping outdated air-conditioning systems and chillers, Mr Pang said that one of his recent upgrading projects helped a building save 45 per cent of energy consumption, resulting in savings of up to S$200,000 a year.

Mr Pang, an NUS mechanical engineering graduate, is also part of the Young Leaders Programme by BCA. The programme helps identify and groom young, talented professionals in the sector.

As a sustainability manager, one of Mr Pang Zi Hao’s main tasks is to ensure that the air-conditioning and chilling systems in buildings and facilities are energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Under this programme and with the support of his firm, he hopes that he will one day rise through the ranks to become a professional engineer.

This designation requires those with engineering degrees and sufficient work experience to sit an examination, and means they can be appointed to roles with greater oversight of projects, for example.

“I can then gain new knowledge, exposure and even venture overseas for new projects to widen my horizons,” said Mr Pang, who also declined to reveal his salary.

His employer Teo Hwee Yean, chief executive officer of CBM Solutions, said the firm was established in 2009. It employs seven people — of whom five are 35 and below — who handle niche areas, such as sustainability and consultancy.

Its latest technological advancement involves a DigiHub system, a digital platform using Internet of Things sensors and analytical tools, artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse the facilities within a building. It can better predict the likelihood of equipment failure, so that these issues may be fixed early or prevented.

Mr Teo said that with this set-up, the firm foresees it would need younger engineers with knowledge of information technology.

It is looking to hire engineers who are proficient in programming, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things sensors. The Internet of Things refers to the global network of internet-enabled sensors, devices and systems.

With technology hastening the push towards environmental sustainability, construction firms have also benefited from digitalisation.

Ms Katheryn Seoh, a building information modeller at Kimly Construction, is responsible for creating and assessing three-dimensional (3D) models of construction projects.

Building information modelling was first used widely in Singapore’s construction industry only about a decade ago. It uses a 3D model-based process that helps engineers and architects glean better insights into their building designs. 

Ms Seoh, 30, graduated with a diploma in interior design from Temasek Polytechnic in 2013 and had two previous roles, first in interior sales design, and then in drafting blueprints for a construction firm.

She joined Kimly Construction in 2018 through the Professional Conversion Programme for building information modelling professionals. The programme helps professionals undergo skills conversion to move into new jobs and sectors.

Ms Katheryn Seoh, a building information modeller at Kimly Construction, is responsible for creating and assessing three-dimensional models of construction projects. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Ms Seoh will look through the 3D model for any flaws in the design and raise any issues she identifies with her superiors.

“To see a building come out of your sketch or drawings, you feel a sense of pride,” said Ms Seoh, who declined to disclose her salary.

While it is still early days in her career, she aims to become a virtual design and construction coordinator at her firm, where she will take on more responsibilities, such as managing a team of modellers. 

Mr Kho Teok Siong, Kimly Construction’s senior virtual design and construction manager, said that the firm was looking to create new roles within building information modelling, which he dubs the “digital path”. These roles will focus on sourcing for software to streamline the workflows of construction projects.

BCA said that roles such as engineers, quantity surveyors and architects are still very much in demand in the built environment sector. 

As the industry transforms, emerging skills, such as building information modelling as well as managing the Internet of Things and green facilities, will also be needed.

At the end of December last year, there were about 7,500 opportunities in the construction sector — excluding those for built environment consultancy services — under the Government’s SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package to help Singaporean jobseekers, including those affected by the pandemic. 

About 90 per cent of the opportunities are jobs. The rest are traineeships, attachments and training programmes.

‘MENIAL LABOUR’ IMAGE AMONG HURDLES IN HIRING YOUTH

While new and exciting roles are in the pipeline, the perception that construction mainly involves menial labour is one that persists, employers said.

Mr Kho said: “The first impression that (young jobseekers) have is that they’ll have to go to the site, walk the site… that it is a tough job.”

He begs to differ, given that technology is making work processes more efficient and reducing the time spent at worksites.

Agreeing, Ms Danilah from Tiong Seng Contractors said that her firm allocates manpower through an online platform, and this means that time-consuming meetings can be reduced.

Ms Danilah’s employer, managing director Colin Tan, added that young people are drawn to “high-profile” roles and the sector may not appeal to them.

“Young people nowadays have a quest for instant recognition for their talent. In construction, it takes many years to train to become a project manager,” said Mr Tan. “That’s why there’s a gap.”

Perceptions that the pay is not competitive are also untrue.

Mr Tan of Tiong Seng Contractors said that a typical starting salary for an engineer in the sector is between S$3,200 and S$3,500 a month. His firm matches or goes beyond this rate, depending on the person’s qualifications.

Agreeing, Mr Chua Chian Hong, civil and infrastructure director at construction firm Samwoh Corporation, said that the remuneration for staff members handling major projects is not to be scoffed at.

For instance, project directors who oversee large projects such as railway lines can be paid more than S$20,000 a month. These roles normally require about 20 years of experience.

Still, the firm struggles to attract younger employees, with about 30 per cent of its engineers being locals who are 35 years old and below.

“People who go into this industry must have the passion for engineering,” Mr Chua said. “If you join a course just to study and get a degree, it is unlikely that you have the passion… a lot of them give up engineering.”

BCA said that among built environment graduates in full-time permanent employment, the median gross monthly salary was S$2,345 for polytechnic graduates last year and S$3,500 for university graduates in 2019.

The government agency added that the sector is increasingly adopting advanced technologies through digitalisation to integrate work processes, and that new opportunities are emerging as a result.

Emerging areas include:

  • Design for maintainability, which is the practice of integrating operations and maintenance considerations into project planning and design

  • Design for manufacturing and assembly, where most of the prefabrication and construction of building components are completed off-site in a controlled factory environment, before final assembly on-site

  • Green building and sustainability, which is the practice of incorporating sustainability in the built environment from the start to end of the project

There are also a range of schemes that individuals can tap to upgrade within the sector, including:  

  • SkillsFuture Study Awards, which provide Singaporeans with funding to develop and deepen specialist skills 

  • The SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy, which helps Singaporeans aged 40 and above by subsidising up to 90 per cent of course fees for more than 8,000 supported courses and at least 90 per cent of programme costs for government-subsidised full-time and part-time courses

Ms Danilah said that to some young local professionals, competition from foreign employees and firms has been discouraging.

A substantial gap in skills among Singaporeans means many foreign professionals have taken on managerial roles in the sector.

But she is unfazed.

“This gives us a wake-up call that we would have to increase our skills and add value to our company, and give our best in our work and duties.”

DRIVEN BY PASSION

Above all, it is passion and pride in their work that keep these young professionals going.

For Mr Lu Chendi of Samwoh Corporation, watching his projects bear fruit has brought him immense satisfaction.

The assistant project manager typically looks after civil infrastructure and is working with his team to redirect a canal to make way for surrounding pavements and roads.

The 31-year-old, who graduated from NUS in 2014 with a degree in civil engineering, is in charge of a team of 38 people, including 30 foreign construction workers.

“In the contractor role, we deal with a lot of expectations and, sometimes, it is very challenging,” he said.

“We don’t just deal with workers; we deal with clients, consultants, designers and, sometimes, the public gets involved.”

Mr Lu Chendi of Samwoh Corporation is in charge of a team of 38 people, including 30 foreign construction workers. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

But Mr Lu, who also declined to state his salary, said he would not have it any other way.

After completing a cycling and park connector network project, he had the satisfaction of watching families use the facilities.

“We replicate something that is only paper into physical items and, at the end of the project, when you look at it… that’s something I cannot use words to describe.

“That fulfilment keeps me going.”

Related topics

where the jobs are employment Jobs careers construction

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