I graduated from a British university in 2017 with an honours degree in Politics and History. I was a Singapore overseas graduate. My initial plan to set up a life and career in the United Kingdom after graduation was thwarted due to a change in British immigration policies.
After returning to Singapore, I tried unsuccessfully to join several government ministries.
In the end, I wound up doing short-term administrative contract jobs for various companies in different industries. One of these was corporate finance, a sector which I thought I could build a career on but soon realised was not my cup of tea.
So in November 2019, I quit my job to search for a new industry and career, with freelance writing done on the side and going to Australia for a Masters degree as my contingency plan.
Covid-19 put paid to all that. I applied for about 60 jobs over a span of four months but nothing came out of them.
I reckoned the economic fallout from the pandemic would be so severe that any viable white-collar job opportunities for someone with a humanities background would see severely depressed pay and increased job insecurity for the foreseeable future.
With that, I decided to become a container prime mover driver, working for a PSA Singapore subcontractor. I found the job in April through the Government job portal, MyCareersFuture.
The single round of interview and hiring process was straightforward. The company liked my experience as a driver with a Class 4 license in the army during my national service, despite it being six years ago.
The salary offered was competitive and comparable to the starting pay for fresh graduates in a white-collar job, though the working hours are more demanding.
A standard month of work would see me clock 22 days of 12-hour shift work at the Pasir Panjang port terminal, of which four hours are overtime. If I want to earn more, I can work up to a maximum of 26 days per month.
I initially had mixed feelings about becoming a prime mover driver.
My mum was ambivalent at best and unsupportive at worst about her overseas graduate son taking up a blue-collar job driving a heavy truck with a 14m trailer.
Luckily, my father was far more supportive, in part due to his own career in a technical field.
While I was glad to have found a job in an unprecedented crisis, there were moments when I felt insecure and harboured some resentment about having to take this unexpected detour in my career path.
Was I wasting a good overseas degree obtained after much effort and at considerable costs? Was I right in abandoning a relatively secure office job after returning to Singapore simply because I didn’t like the industry?
These questions lingered on my mind even as I started a one-week training course at PSA University in late April.
Then I met a coursemate called Khai, a diploma holder who had also obtained his Class 4 licence during national service. Being of the same age, we hit it off immediately.
He was surprised that a graduate like me was getting into truck driving. I was even more surprised that he had worked as a flight attendant in Singapore Airlines and Scoot for the past two years, before deciding to quit early this year due to the aviation industry coming to a halt.
Meeting Khai helped me overcome my doubts about this job I have picked, as did the support from two of my two closest friends, both of whom are graduates.
Whilst they were initially taken aback by my new career choice, they have been largely supportive since and even curious about the inner workings of the port and the life of a prime mover driver.
After completing the one-week training course and passing a basic driving test, I embarked on another week-long on-the-job training stint with a company mentor, before I was assessed to be ready for solo driving.
Two weeks into my new job, I was driving independently on 12-hour shifts, moving containers of various sizes and types to and from different yards within the port terminal and docked vessels.
It took me a while to acclimatise to the weather elements, but time passes quickly in the hustle and bustle of port work. Rain or shine, shipping and logistics work never stops.
Much of what makes one a good container prime mover driver is down to experience gained over time, and a healthy respect for the job and the vehicle one drives.
The journey Khai and I have gone through are going to be increasingly common in the years ahead for Singaporean graduates.
There is going to be a lot to unpack and get used to in terms of mentality and expectations towards different classes of work, and of one’s self-image and life purpose.
Khai and I are amongst many others ahead of the curve in this changing reality.
I have come to accept that it is normal for people to feel apprehensive, conflicted and demoralised about changing career and life pathways.
But we’ll get through it. We have to. In for a penny, in for a pound.
All work has value, all work takes skill, and just because society is behind the curve in recognising this does not mean we should let that weigh down on us.
On the contrary, more local graduates should be more open about taking up blue-collar jobs in the current economic climate and help change the perception that they are “low skilled”, “fit only for cheaper foreign labour”, “have no prospects” and “lowly paid”.
I’m writing this as a new arrival to the port and logistics business.
But looking at my peers I’m working with, my trainers with decades of experience under their belt, and a close-up look at the port industry in Singapore, I have no doubt that this new career direction will be fulfilling and productive both in bringing home the bacon for myself, as well as spurring on personal growth in my mind and life for as much as I commit myself to it.
Many similar industries in Singapore are equally, if not more, critical for the survival of our country than we give them credit for.
We’ve already learnt with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the indispensable roles of our healthcare staff, cleaners and even our delivery drivers.
As the realities of a job market during a recession bite harder, our society will soon realise that academic qualifications will become increasingly irrelevant.
The future of work globally will not be one with a clear blue- and white-collar job divide.
Any job should and will be a good job, requiring a good cross-section proficiency of hard and soft skills, manual and intellectual rigour, regardless of scope or industry.
And I am proud of taking the first small steps in bridging this divide for myself and for society.
Andy Wong, 26, graduated from the University of Hull with an honours degree in Politics and History. Besides working full-time as a prime mover driver, he is a freelance defence and current affairs writer.