We Might No Longer Have Plumbers From 2033 & NTUC’s Career Progression Model Might Solve This Problem

When you think of a “good job”, you probably think of higher-paying ones like becoming an engineer, accountant or doctor.

What about our skilled essential tradesmen? You know, your friendly plumbers, electricians and air-conditioning & mechanical ventilation mechanics. Can they one day have good jobs too?

Well, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is looking to improve the work prospects and wages for these skilled essential workers.

Here’s the reason why.

Career Progression Model

On 9 February 2023, NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng announced the trade union’s intention to introduce a new framework: the Career Progression Model (CPM).

Sec-Gen Ng was on a learning journey at a plumbing maintenance site at Jalan Teck Whye when he made the announcement. 

There, he met plumbers from JD Waters Pte Ltd together with NTUC U SME Director Yeo Wan Ling and Singapore Plumbing Society President Dickrose Masalamani.

So you know it’s serious business.

CPM reflects NTUC’s intention to improve job prospects and wages of skilled essential workers.

Essentially, the framework would allow these workers to have a concrete career progression path. 

It will also create more training pathways from tertiary education into skilled essential trades.

Furthermore, it would publicise clear and transparent quality standards within skilled essential trade industries.

If the framework comes to pass, those in the skilled trades industry will benefit from structured skills training that will create better career prospects and salaries.

Focus on 3 Skilled Trades First

NTUC will first prioritise three skilled trades that directly affect our lives, since we’d have called them at least once before: Plumbers, electricians and air-conditioning and mechanical ventilation mechanics.

Currently, Singapore sees about 50,000 locals in the skilled essential trades industry.

Besides the trades mentioned above, other types of skilled tradesmen include those in the building trade and metal and machinery workers.

CPM comes after 2012’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM).

Back then, NTUC first mooted the idea of PWM to help lower-wage workers like cleaners and security officers achieve sustainable wage increases and enhance their skills and productivity. Overall, the PWM is expected to benefit 94 per cent of the lower-wage workforce—about 234,000 workers!

It already spans five sectors:

  • Cleaning
  • Security
  • Landscape
  • Lift and escalator
  • Retail

And will be expanded to the food services and waste management sectors soon!

Why CPM?

Think back to the last time you attended a career fair.

Sure, you probably learnt about the pathway to becoming a doctor or lawyer, but did you see any information on how to become a skilled essential tradesman?

We usually only think of such workers when we need to engage their services.

Other than that, not so much.

However, there has been a glaring problem in the industry.

Namely, a lack of younger hires. 

Humans inevitably grow old. As the tradesmen workforce ages, there is a concern that there will eventually be a lack of supply of such workers in Singapore.

Mr Ng said, “There is a national need to ensure that essential services such as water and power are safeguarded. If the current challenges facing skilled essential trades are not addressed, we will see a critical lack of local expertise in these sectors in 10 years’ time.”

Wait, does that mean there might be a lack of plumbers ten years from now, and so that means if we’ve a clogged toilet bowl in 2033…we might have trouble finding a plumber?

Image: The Len / Shutterstock.com

According to the 2022 Singapore Labour Force Survey, more than half of these tradesmen are above 50.

Since the minimum retirement age in Singapore is 63, it’s evident that the industry may lose its worker supply if there is a lack of younger hires.

In addition, the median monthly wage of these skilled trade workers was about $2,600 in 2022.

If you weren’t aware, that’s near the threshold for lower-wage workers.

The threshold for Workfare Income Supplement is $2,500.

Thus, skilled essential trade workers may struggle to cover their daily expenses, especially in a country with a high cost of living like Singapore.

Thus, the CPM will give workers not in the industry yet a level of certainty.

Sec-Gen Ng added, “One can become a licensed plumber at any stage in life, but there is no stipulated career progression after that. The progression model will provide ladders in the industry so that young people coming out of school can look forward to a competency framework that can help them to upgrade their skills and license them for a better career.”

So the problem is the lack of these workers…won’t the solution be merely training them?

Not so easy.

Misconceptions About the Skilled Essential Trade Industry

At the annual Singapore Economic Policy Forum held in October 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong pointed out that Singapore society tends to put intellectual work on a pedestal, neglecting the value of technical, service and community care roles.

Unfortunately, the effect of this stigma is prevalent, with fewer young people becoming plumbers or air-con technicians.

There’s also a rampant misconception that those who work in the skilled essential trade industry are less intelligent and do not have a bright future waiting for them.

According to TODAY, this misconception stems from the fact that many think such work looks effortless. 

However, the only reason why such work looks easy is due to the blood, sweat and tears of skilled essential tradesmen who spent many years perfecting their skills.

After all, have you tried buying those sink decloggers and think that they’d solve the problem…only to realise that they don’t work? #truestory

What is a “Good Job”?

Can Singaporeans change our mindset about what constitutes a “good job”?

In a previous interview with TODAY, Assoc Prof Theseira noted that there doesn’t seem to be a point to society talking about upgrading technical and vocational job status until those jobs pay better.

He added, “There are many bad jokes about lawyers, but at the end of the day, almost any parent in Singapore would be happy to hear their child is dating a lawyer because we know that profession is associated with financial security and success.”

It is no doubt that Singaporeans are obsessed with financial security and success. It’s even reflected in the 5Cs of the Singaporean Dream.

A.k.a cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership.

However, Mr Wong noted that the value of a job shouldn’t be placed on monetary value alone.

He said, “We must move away from preconceptions that academic success should be prized above all others. Instead, we must respect those who labour with their hands and hearts and confer upon them the same status as other paths.”

#EveryWorkerMatters: Join the Conversation

Undoubtedly, the stigma of workers in the skilled essential trades industry has taken a negative toll on our society.

Not only does it encourage societal exclusion, but there will be not many to do skilled essential trade work in the future.

This means that if your pipe bursts and you can’t find a way to fix it, good luck to you!

NTUC’s Career Progression Model is a good step in the right direction and may even encourage young adults to join the industry, especially those considering skilled essential trade work but have no idea where to begin.

An upcoming #EveryWorkerMatters Conversation will be held with tradesmen later this month on 23 February 2023.

If you have more ideas on how to support these tradesmen and sustain the industry, share them with NTUC at conversations.ntuc.sg

If not, you might have to live with a flooded sink come 2033.

This article was first published on Goody Feed and written in collaboration with NTUC.