Getting Future Ready at Straits Construction
Kenneth Loo, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of Straits Construction, offers a wistful smile when he compares today’s workforce with that of yesteryear’s.
“When I started as an engineer, I worked a seven-day week, with only one Sunday off every fortnight,” he says.
“But now, you can’t fight the wave.”
Chan Kah Leng, Head of HR and Administration, Straits Construction, says employees now want regular time off and space at all levels.
“Employees will now ask ‘what can you do for my work-life balance’?” she explains.
“That is why the management, being forward-looking, hears them and tries to devise policies that enhance their work-life balance. We cannot give 100% of what they want, but we balance it out.”
Loo says another key factor to consider these days is empowerment.
“Gone are the days when you have a very authoritarian kind of management system, where employees run if the boss asks them to run, stop if they’re told to do so, jump and so on,” he explains.
“In order to retain people, you need to grow them. A lot of people, especially Generation Y and millennial employees, are looking at career progression and opportunities.”
Loo says this doesn’t mean that if a company pays employees an extra hundred dollars, they will be loyal and stay with it.
“Those days are gone. Employees look at the total package. Things such as work-life balance and flexible hours were once unheard of in Singapore, especially in the construction industry,” he says.
Loo says the construction sector is currently going through a downturn.
“We have just come out from a phase where we had unprecedented growth,” he cites.
Loo says during that time, possibly the biggest problem for companies in the sector was retention.
“If you look at the Sectorial Manpower Plan that the government has been talking about and things such as SkillsFuture, it’s always talking about building a Singapore ‘core’,” he explains.
“I think for our sector, it’s probably trying to continuously build a strong local workforce and of course, to retain and get young people to join our industry. That is the biggest challenge we have.”
Loo admits that construction is an industry that a lot of people shy away from, especially locals in Singapore.
“So, the big challenge is to get people to be interested to join. Construction is always labelled as dirty and dangerous. This is the perception and the harsh reality we have to face,” he says.
“That is why we need to change.”
Loo says that the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), together with other stakeholders in the construction, has come up with a rebranding roadmap to change the public perception of the industry.
“I think the perception of people towards the industry is important. That’s one of the big challenges to get new entrants,” he says.
“Of course, the other challenge is that the demand has been more than supply over the last few years. That was the big challenge and we had to get people moving around.”
Building a training pipeline for talent
While all sectors in Singapore are regulated to some degree, Loo concedes the construction sector is often more strictly regulated than other parts of the economy.
“The government is tightening foreign labour and Singapore’s construction industry is probably one of the most regulated in the region,” he says.
“We have no choice but to adopt practices to be more manpower-lean and to embrace technology.”
Acknowledging this, Loo says the quality and skillsets of the people that the organisation has will also have to change.
“The new people who come in will have to be ready for the new challenges. Internally, we cannot say that we will switch everybody over,” he notes.
In order to equip employees to be future-ready, Straits Construction started its own internal training unit, called the Training and Development Department, or TDD.
“We are probably one of the few construction firms of our size to have such policies,” says Loo.
According to Chan, TDD is a separate department to HR.
“This is the construction industry, so the knowledge is very specialised. That is why we set up a different department to look into the training and development of all the staff,” says Chan.
“For HR, while we can attract talents in, it’s a big challenge to retain them. Part of the strategy is to train and to impart knowledge onto them. So, TDD plays a very important role in retaining them because we have different choices of training.
For example, Ng Kian Soon, Manager (HR and Administration), Straits Construction, says safety is first and foremost the most important thing for a Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) engineer.
“Secondly, they will have to go into their individual speciality. We also ensure that we follow the BCA academy training courses. So, we send them for specialist diplomas in M&E,” he shares.
“It’s the same for project engineers. They must know safety first and then legislation, such as the things to look out for on construction sites and of course, the day-to-day functionalities and competencies, such as project management skills, scheduling, and communication with consultants.”
Another example of the organisation’s resolute commitment towards the learning and development of its staff is its 12,000 square-meter facility in Tuas, complete with classrooms and lecture rooms.
“ToolBox is the building name and it’s our productivity centre,” Chan says.
“There, we concentrate both on staff and workers’ training. The conducted courses include leadership and soft skills to enhance gaps that may appear as employees progress with their careers.”
In fact, Chan says some of the organisation’s employees from TDD are qualified trainers.
Ng says the centre has been accredited by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency to conduct Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) courses such as productivity, innovation and quality.
“Sometimes, when the training analysis done by our training team calls for it, they also look at aspects and train our colleagues for some of the soft skills like Microsoft Excel and Office, and technical writing,” he adds.
Leadership opportunities are also intertwined with training and career advancement.
“As staff move up the career development levels, the project sites and departments give them the opportunities to lead in certain small projects, exercising their leadership and management skills,” Chan explains.
Another core aspect of Straits Construction’s business is communication.
With the current workforce being young and very tech-savvy, Chan says most of them appreciate an open communication culture and the policies that the organisation makes.
“In the present scenario, Generation Y and millennial employees expect answers and they want to have transparency and an explanation of how the policies work,” she explains.
“That means we have to communicate quite a bit in order to explain to them why we have arrived at certain decisions. That will be the main thrust of the company’s strategies from an HR point of view. Hence, we conduct a lot of engagement sessions and we get them involved in a lot of areas.”
In fact, Chan reveals the organisation went through its biggest engagement session two years ago, where it found almost 100% of the staff was engaged in its work.
“We got a consultant to come in and talk about the company and the aspirations. From there, we derived certain points that were brought up most commonly, and we analysed them one by one,” Chan elaborates.
“Subsequently, we have had smaller engagement groups. So, we go by job families. It happens once or twice a year.”
Loo says during the first large-scale session, the company made sure it got feedback of what employees really wanted.
Communication is further facilitated by Straits Construction’s “open and friendly” culture, Chan says.
“We are always open to communication and we don’t close our doors; all the bosses’ doors are open,” Loo explains.
Loo says the organisation’s young team also fosters a vibrant atmosphere.
Sourcing for talent
While Loo says foreign hiring at the work permit level accounts for more than 50% of Straits Construction’s international workforce, moving up to the next levels, the organisation comprises of engineers and management staff.
“In that line, you’ll probably have a higher percentage of locals. We have a policy of always trying to hire locals first but sometimes, it might not be possible,” he explains.
“But, our foreign labour is all within the government’s quotas.”
Loo says those who go through the Institutes of Technical Education and polytechnics enter the organisation at a supervisory level.
“We get our talent from many avenues. We participate in the BCA scholarship programme and we offer scholarships to get students and also interns in. Of course, we also recruit them after their graduation,” he shares.
Five years ago, the company also introduced a management trainee programme and tailored it to suit the construction industry specifically.
Chan also explains the organisation constantly participates in career fairs to attract talent, tapping onto both local and overseas universities.
Tellingly, Loo says Malaysia is often a better source of talent recruitment than other international locations.
“For Malaysia in particular, we find it better in the sense that they fit and assimilate much faster into the culture of Singapore,” he adds.
Devising different rewards
Ng explains for all employees who join Straits Construction, the organisation has developed a salary grade and structure and that there is a career path for each job family.
“For example, a fresh grad will go for structured training for the first two years to make sure they are compliant and that their core competencies are all matched. Once they are done with that, we assign them a mentor to make sure that they know how to manage a site, and there will also be coaching as well from the older generation colleagues, who have been with the company for more than 20 years,” he explains.
“Every year, we have two appraisals to appraise them accordingly. If they are up, they can either be promoted or upgraded. This is how we make sure they have a structured career path ahead.”
According to Chan, there is a difference between promotion and an upgrade.
“Promotion is whereby you take a responsibility that is at a higher level than what you’re doing now, probably in terms of know-how or problem solving. In an upgrade, you’re actually doing the same job, but your responsibility is a little bit bigger. In terms of salary structure, it’s still a difference in the hierarchy, so employees know they have moved up a level, but it’s not tantamount to a promotion,” she elaborates.
Ng says all rewards tie back to other factors such as economic and company financial factors.
“We will definitely reward the stellar performers. We will definitely have certain components to reward them accordingly so there will be differentiation,” he shares.
“Moving ahead, the talent management team is looking at being more sustainable in the long-run because talent management is affected by the projects, and also by market conditions. That is why we do have a different tier of rewards. Line managers also identify successors for positions.
Once this has been scoped out, Ng says the company then identifies the talent pool and who are the ready-now and ready-later.
Chan stresses there is constant communication as to where employees’ gaps are, and if there are gaps, they will go for development and training such as attending courses, and their mentor will step in to coach them.
In addition, Ng says Straits Construction also has long-service awards and the best employee award of the year which the firm will hand out at the year-end dinner and dance.
“This year, we have three groups: managers, project and support groups respectively. This allows us to cast the net wide and really reward talents,” he explains.
Ng says the organisation “cannot please everybody”, but the management is forward-looking enough to recognise the key thrusts of employee demands, such as social well-being.
“For example, in terms of corporate social responsibility, we adopted Club Rainbow, a charity to help children with life-threatening illnesses, and we also have a family day,” he says.
Ng says the company also tries to get colleagues from various departments to come in and work together, and to hear from each other.
“Hence, they have a chance to break the communication barrier and present their proposals to the management,” he adds.
“In this way, people will feel management are not sitting in ivory towers.”
Loo emphasises that the company tries to differentiate itself as an employer of choice, rather than to fight a constant war for and against talent.
“You have to differentiate yourself from the rest, especially in today’s context. There is no point paying a hundred dollars more when at the end of the day, the next guy down the street will also do that. That’s not sustainable and we look at sustainability and the value proposition.”
At a glance
Total number of employees (Singapore): 737
Size of the HR Team (Singapore): 8
Key HR Focus Areas:
A new construction frontier
Straits Construction is currently undertaking its Integrated Construction and Prefabrication Hub (ICPH) project.
“That will be a state of the art facility, not only in Singapore terms, but probably around the world,” says Kenneth Loo, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of Straits Construction.
“It will be a fully-automated precast production hub.”
According to the company, the ICPH “is one of the key initiatives the government has introduced to upgrade the productivity of the construction industry by adopting highly productive technology and automation”.
Who’s Who in HR
Chief Operating Officer / Executive Director
Chan Kah Leng
Senior Manager – Human Resource & Administration
Ng Kian Soon
HR & Administration Manager
Lim Shan Ru