Work in progress

Singapore’s SGUnited Traineeship programme was launched in 2020 to help fresh graduates gain work experience amidst a stormy Covid-19 climate. We hear from five SMU alumni of them about their new found work wisdom.

A year ago, Yew Jee Yuen began serving extra time at SMU.

No, it wasn’t because he had to complete his graduation requirements; on the contrary, he had more than fulfilled them. In fact, he chose to come back.

Jee Yuen, who graduated in 2020 with a master’s degree from the School of Economics (SOE), landed a traineeship opportunity with the University last year. His short-term work experience was part of the SGUnited Traineeships, a nation-wide job placement programme for fresh graduates.

Initiated by the Ministry of Manpower and supported by Workforce Singapore and Singapore Business Federation, the SGUnited Traineeships programme helps fresh graduates tide over the debilitated Covid-19 job market. Through collaborations with companies - including SMU - across sectors and industries, specially curated six-month to year-long traineeship positions are developed as a win-win for both parties: trainees get a chance to apply skills and learn basic ropes of navigating the professional workplace to boost their future employability, while employers gain direct access to a young and motivated talent pool they can recruit from when permanent headcounts within their firms become available.

At SMU, the Office of Human Resources and Faculty Administration (OHRFA), Office of Dean of Students (ODOS) and Dato’ Kho Hui Meng Career Centre were instrumental in rallying together other SMU administrative units and school offices to identify potential traineeship positions to support faculty and staff. They then helped market the programme internally and externally, and facilitated the candidates’ hiring process.

More than 150 traineeships across SMU’s offices, centres, institutes and schools were created as part of the SGUnited Traineeships offered last year. These positions were open to all 2019 and 2020 graduate job-seekers, but SMU alumni were given an exclusive one month first-dibs on traineeships within the University. However, all applicants went through the same rigorous selection process. In the end, 40 SMU alumni were offered various SMU traineeships. Jee Yuen was one successful candidate.

Passion for research work

Jee Yuen is presently a research assistant with the Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA), where he helps professors and the team translate data findings into reports and potential policy recommendations to help our society age better, with the right support systems. He is one of nine SMU alumni among 14 ROSA trainees employed so far by the Centre – the largest cohort in any SMU department.

For fresh graduates, diving headfirst into the world of research – especially one that involves such a huge dataset that is Singapore’s greying population – can be intimidating, but extremely exciting and rewarding. But no matter the challenges – be it getting used to the intensive days of data collection or grasping new research tools, these rookie researchers have taken them all in their stride.

Says Centre Manager Lim Wensi: “The trainees impressed us so much with their dedication and commitment to our research on ageing. They are this generation’s drivers of social change as we adapt to a more accepting and inclusive society.”

Despite the steep learning curve, Jee Yuen says it is a position he had wanted, as it allows him to not just pursue his passion in research and learn from fellow researchers, but more significantly channel these opportunities towards a bigger, more humbling goal.

“My work allows me to apply my skillsets in a practical way, and glean insights into the livelihoods of respondents. What we do is also a constant reminder that we don’t just churn out numbers and graphs, but think of solutions to help people around us,” he says.

Fellow research assistant Nadya Haifan also specifically chose a ROSA traineeship to debut into the working world. To Nadya, an alumna from the School of Social Sciences (SOSS), the premise of what ROSA does was a key motivation for her application. She admits that working with such a big sample size, while challenging, adds to the “incredible excitement” she feels for her daily work.

During her undergraduate days, she volunteered regularly with the Children’s Cancer Foundation and realised the positive outcome to both beneficiary and benefactor. Her work at ROSA enables her to continue making such impact. Working in an already familiar environment also adds a nice layer of icing.

“I get to interact with professors I know and look up to, and am part of SMU’s research work,” she gushes.

Another who chose a research-scoped traineeship is Colin Chai, also an SOSS alumnus. His stint with the Lee Kong Chian School of Business – which concluded recently in July – was a progression of what he had been building on as an undergraduate, he says.

Then, in between studies, actively playing volleyball and growing spiritually with SMU CRU, Colin took on several research assistantships, while completing a senior thesis. Upon graduation, he wasn’t 100% sure of his job path but chanced upon the LKCSB research assistant role and decided to give it a go.

He admits that while research work can be laboriously intensive and extremely focused - with singular tasks like literature reviews or data analyses occupying days in a row - Colin appreciates that his stint has bought him experience, and confirmed his interest in the field of research.

“This traineeship has shown me what research comprises beyond school projects, and helped me better understand what I desire in a future job,” he says convincingly.

Affinity for SMU
When SOE graduate Liu Xin found out that SMU was offering traineeships, she jumped at the chance; after all, she has a fond affection for her alma mater g. Liu Xin attributes a memorable overseas exchange stint and invaluable peer interactions during her undergraduate days as significant learning moments which moulded her social skills and made her realise the value of SMU’s pedagogy that emphasises both in and out of classroom. An opportunity to come back and work within a wholesome learning environment was thus almost a no-brainer.

Liu Xin was particularly interest in the variety of HR, Operations and IT traineeships offered by SMU, and eventually landed a position with OHRFA. Ironically, she was tasked to look after part of the traineeship recruitment process and also worked with ODOS to manage online job postings and liaise with employing departments and potential trainees, which helped to further bolster her social work skills.

“I’ve learnt how to deal with difficult queries and express myself clearly so colleagues and candidates know what is required, and issues can be solved quicker,” says Liu Xin.

Perpetuating the SMU experience

When fellow SOE alumnus Benjamin Phang graduated, he had already prepared himself mentally for a tough job search ahead. 2020 was after all, a bizarre year marked by upheavals, plots twists and forced pivots. With SMU’s resources at his fingertips, Benjamin sought help from the Dato’ Kho Hui Meng Career Centre (DKHMCC), where a career coach pointed him towards the SMU traineeships.

“I took up the position as residential manager at Prinsep Street Residences (PSR) because I had some background in the job scope. Besides, it would allow me to start paying back my university loan,” he quips.

During his SMU days, Benjamin was a member of SMU Judo and SMU Fides, and participated in a number of overseas experiences which included co-leading an overseas community service project (Project iLove 9) to Cambodia, an internship in Yangon and an exchange programme in Norway. These co-curricular opportunities taught him how to lead and manage a team, solve problems, negotiate more effectively with different stakeholders, and network – indispensable soft skills which he says come in extremely handy in his daily work.

“My role demands soft skills more than technical ones, as a lot of time is spent in operations communicating with stakeholders or discussing residents’ needs. But these interactions have allowed me to understand students, staff and external partners so much better.”

Benjamin can also empathise easily with the students - having walked in their shoes barely a year ago - and understands their anxieties given this protracted Covid-19 period. However, in spite of current constraints, he is determined to provide the best possible residential experience for them, to develop positive memories of their SMU experience – just like his.

Keeping an open mind

Whether these traineeships were “stumbled upon” by Benjamin and Colin, or purposefully sought out by Jee Yuan, Nadya and Liu Xin, the postings worked out more than fine for them: Jee Yuen, Liu Xin and Benjamin were offered full-time positions with their respective departments and have gladly accepted the conversions.

The traineeships also cemented Colin and Nadya’s passion for research-work. After her traineeship ends, Nadya has immediate plans for post-graduate studies which will allow her to become a better researcher and future change-maker.

If there is a common thread among these anecdotes, it is to seize job opportunities that come by with an open mind. Yes, traineeships may be short-stint work experiences but serendipity does happen – even in a drab situation called Covid-19.

DKHMCC deputy director Prasanthi Guda - one of the key personnel who facilitated SMU’s traineeship programme – is a strong advocate for adopting such a mindset. After all, there will only be positives, she says, “These traineeships may become permanent positions at their host organisations; but more importantly, they provide invaluable learning opportunities and practical experiences which will definitely enhance candidates’ employability.”

Meanwhile, as grey Covid clouds still hover overhead, fresh graduates and those following in their footsteps are advised not be too hung up over finding what they believe are the ‘perfect’ jobs right away. Take it from one who took a while, but finally found his full-time job right under his nose.

“Be open to other opportunities, traineeships or even jobs outside your interest,” says Benjamin.  “After all, getting that ideal job is a process.”