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What's A Labour Movement Doing Rubbing Shoulders With Startups? We Find Out.

On 30 June, I had the chance to attend a closed-door dialogue held at ACE Ideation Centre, located in the heart of one-north, Singapore’s R&D and high-technology cluster.

My fellow attendees were founders of ACE startups, ACE and NTUC employees, and Secretary-General of NTUC Mr Chan Chun Sing. While it was understandable for ACE (Action Community for Entrepreneurship) to meet up with their startups, I could not figure out why NTUC was involved.

To me, what I knew about NTUC was that they are a labour movement that, like any labour movement, fights for the rights of workers and also sell insurance part-time under NTUC Income. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if NTUC and Mr Chan Chun Sing met with workers of MNCs and SMEs instead?

NTUC’s online shopping and rewards programme NTUC Plus and their auntie-killer Fairprice chain of supermarkets don’t seem to belong in the startup scene either.

Soon enough, my questions were answered when Mr Vivek Kumar, Executive Director of NTUC, started the ball rolling by giving a short introduction to what NTUC does, and their realisation that their initiatives can no longer focus on just the traditional model of taking care of only blue-collared workers, like how labour movements traditionally did and many in the world still do.

He also acknowledged entrepreneurship these days is seen as a “pretty glamourous [yet] viable” career option.

He isn’t wrong.

With the number of startups in Singapore doubling in 10 years (23,000 in 2004 and 55,000 in 2014), and over 345,000 workers employed by startups currently, it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the trend and label it as ‘just a phase’.

According to research, entrepreneurship is also among the “top 3 choices for students” between the ages of 7 to 14, so we can only predict that an increasing number of our future workers would be turning towards working at startups as a career option.

That would also mean that labour movements such as NTUC would need to evolve, expand and grow with each generation of workers.

So What Exactly Does NTUC Do?

As a labour movement, their intentions are simple – to help workers attain better jobs, better pay and better lives-  but they also need to be sensitive to any changes in the work landscape.

As Mr Chan had mentioned during NTUC’s May Day message in April, “The interests and needs of our rank and file, professionals, managers, executives, part-timers, freelancers and even the self-employed are all different. Hence, our services for them must be similarly diverse.”

A summary of how NTUC is helping workers from varied groups as an ‘unusual’ labour movement / Image Credit: NTUC
A summary of how NTUC is helping workers from varied groups as an ‘unusual’ labour movement / Image Credit: NTUC

To ensure these workers are up-to-date and ready for the demands of the market, NTUC has embarked on career guidance and placement services for workers at various points of their career.

Training for workers are also focused on getting them equipped with ‘wide’ as compared to ‘deep’ skill sets. For example, getting an engineer to learn very transferrable management and business knowhow, which would come in handy lest an impending career-switch takes place.

Not wanting to leave gaps in the labour market, NTUC also takes care of those with freelance working arrangements, who make up for around 200,000.

One can only imagine, with the volatile work market, that the numbers have increased.

Drawing The Links

With the arrival of Mr Chan to the dialogue, the startups went around the table and started sharing about what their product was.

The set up of the sharing session
The set up of the sharing session

From one that coordinates home-care and nursing solutions, to another that provides a map-based real estate portal, the startups were varied in nature, but similar in one thing – they wanted to provide a solution to existing problems.

As compared to just nodding in acknowledgement, Mr Chan was extremely interested in the sharing, asking in-depth questions at every turn. At times, even the founders were stumped, and had to take a while to answer his questions!

“This is definitely not what I was expecting from a sharing with a minister. It feels more like a pitching competition to investors!” I remember thinking to myself.

Almost as if Mr Chan had read my mind, he then revealed with a smile, “You all must be wondering why I’m asking strange questions right? (everyone laughs) I’m asking because I’m trying to see where are the opportunities that I can link you up with somebody within the NTUC network. It might be one of the social enterprises, it might be NTUC itself, it might be some of my unions, it might be some of my friends…I need to know your product so that I can help.”

And with that, everything made sense to me and everyone else in the room.

Soon enough, there were fervent discussions on how the wide network that NTUC possesses can help the startups, with founders revealing their ‘wishlists’ and Mr Chan suggesting ways that the products can be tweaked, and then launched with NTUC’s help.

Pairing Experience With Innovation

An issue that also came up during the discussion was the lack of experienced corporate-based executives amidst the abundance of innovation in the startup space.

Shaun Kwan from startup Trakomatic raised the problem of getting mid-career professionals with “years of experience in management and global marketing strategies” on board to “help startups [progress] from their accelerator”.

This is where NTUC’s training and retraining efforts for PMEs (both employed and recently unemployed) comes in.

The job market has not been kind to workers, and it was reported in June that “the number of workers let go was still the highest in any first quarter in the past seven years”, with those aged 50 and above seeing jobless rates going up for the fourth quarter in a row to 2.2%.

By profiling startups as an exciting career for these PMEs and linking them together, both stand to benefit from the partnership. The older workers get to learn new applicable skills and are valued for their corporate experience, while young workers get to focus on product innovation and learn from professionals with invaluable real-life experience.

What Do The Startups Think?

We reached out to several startups in a bid to find out what they felt about the session, and their hopes for the partnership.

Most of them expressed their pleasant surprise that, as compared to a mere sharing session, it was a great opportunity for them to get introduced to the initiatives and help available for startups.

Quek Siu Rui of Carousell and Shaun Kwan of Trakomatic discussing their products with Mr Chan
Quek Siu Rui of Carousell and Shaun Kwan of Trakomatic discussing their products with Mr Chan

Quek Siu Rui of e-commerce app Carousell shared, “It turned out to be [an] interesting discussion because Mr Chan took the time to understand each of the participant’s business models, and suggested relevant initiatives within NTUC to match us up with”.

The session also helped shatter their previous misconceptions of NTUC and what they do.

Charmain Tan of QuickDesk, a CRM application made for sales teams and professionals, said that she previously “only knew that they were serving the people in the workforce”, and felt that the initiatives were great “as one of the key needs that startups have is connections”.

Added Quek, “It’s easy to become complacent when you’re the only trade union centre in Singapore, but NTUC sincerely wants to help the labour force”.

In general, the mood was optimistic across the board, and just like how the startups have expressed their excitement on moving forward with NTUC, we can also look forward to bigger, and better things to come out this collaboration.

Watch This Space

The session lasted just over 1 and 1/2 hours, but there was much discussed, and much that I’m sure startups would want to discuss with NTUC and Mr Chan.

The startups were promised a follow-up email from NTUC with potential contacts they could link up with, and there was a buzz in the atmosphere that I can only guess to be a sign of a very interesting partnership to come.

Who knows, NTUC might just be the bridge that’ll link the innovative spirit of startups to the valuable expertise of experienced PMEs.

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