• Wong Wing Lum

SGUnited Traineeships: The pros, the cons, and the bottom line

Updated: 9 hours ago

As part of the COVID-19 response, traineeships under the SGUnited initiative aim to help the graduates and mid-career individuals of the pandemic-era tide stay employable in the gloomy economic climate. Is it truly the silver lining for jobseekers amidst the crisis?



Updates from Budget 2021


The government recently announced the extension of the SGUnited Traineeships (SGUT) Programme and SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme in the 2021 Budget Address.


Graduates in the calendar year 2019 to 2021, can look forward to up to 35,000 traineeship and training opportunities. Meanwhile, 14,500 traineeships and full-time training positions will be available for those who qualify for the mid-career category.


What is a Traineeship in the context of SGUnited Jobs and Skills?


Before the pandemic, the concept of traineeships was not as widely adopted in Singapore. We are more acquainted with internships. Though there are slight nuances that differentiate the two around the world, by definition, they serve the same purpose.


A traineeship is designed to help young people who may not have the relevant work experiences become work-ready through skills training from job attachments. The objective is to curb a “chicken-and-egg” problem that most graduates face: they want to gain relevant skill sets through meaningful employment, yet they could not secure such opportunities due to the lack of their work experiences.


The term runs under a slightly different meaning for traineeships launched under SGUnited.


What is SGUnited Traineeship

As an initiative that was triggered solely in response to COVID-19, traineeships launched under SGUnited are primarily centered around a dual focus: Firstly, to help recent graduates and mid-career individuals affected by the pandemic-ridden job market find employment and secondly, to help companies gain access to much-needed resources during the economic downturn. The government incentivises host organisations to hire by co-funding 80% of the training allowances for the duration of the contract (up to 12 months during its first launch in FY2020, reduced to up to 6 months for the extended launch for FY2021).


Traineeships under SGUnited were made accessible to recent graduates and mid-career individuals under the SGUnited Traineeships and the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme respectively.


The SGUnited Traineeships was introduced in the Fortitude Budget in May 2020. Under the programme, recent and new graduates of Institutes of Higher Learning and Institute of Technical Education get opportunities to build their capabilities and enhance their employability as the economy recovers from COVID-19.


The SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme kicked off slightly later in August 2020. Under the Mid-Career Pathways Programme, more experienced mid-career individuals similarly can gain industry-relevant experience to stay employable amid the pandemic through job attachments and traineeships.


The contemplation


By December 2020, some 4,700 fresh graduates have been placed in such opportunities out of the 21,000 openings made available. Meanwhile, 430 out of 13,700 opportunities were filled for the Mid-Career Pathways Programme.


Despite the good intentions behind the SGUnited traineeships, the low- to mid-range take-up rates reflect the reservations prospective job seekers still have about the programme.


For some, traineeships should only be considered at the last resort: if, and only if jobseekers have tried unsuccessfully to find full-time employment.


Yet, to do so can be limiting one’s potential and growth in his or her career.


In this article, we’ll explore a rounded perspective for those who are considering this pathway. We’ll do so by examining the tangible and intangible pros and cons you need to consider from being a trainee. Managing the expectations of what a traineeship entails helps you to reconcile with the uncertainty and moments of hardships in your pursuit, should you embark on this path.


Pros and Cons of SGUnited Traineeship

The Cons


1. Money


Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Looking at monetary benefits alone, it’s clear why traineeships are perceived to be the more subservient option as compared to permanent employment contracts. For both graduates and mid-career individuals, the specific training allowance is capped according to the different tiers of education qualifications and requirements.


For Graduates from 2019 to 2021 (both years inclusive)


For Mid-career individuals


According to the 2020 Polytechnic Graduate Survey jointly conducted by the five local polytechnics (RP, NP, TP, NYP and SP) in Singapore, the median gross salary for fresh graduates and post-NS graduates in full-time permanent employment across all course clusters is $2,400. As for ITE graduates, the starting gross mean monthly salaries reflected in the 2019 Graduate Employment Survey for fresh graduates and post-NS graduates are $1,765 and $2,180 respectively. University graduates in NTU, NUS, SMU and SUSS who found a full-time job earned a median starting salary of $3,700.


Since some graduates can earn higher starting salaries in other permanent employment opportunities, a traineeship can be seen as an inferior choice. Similarly, mid-career individuals who have racked up a certain level of experience may expect to command a certain salary that a traineeship’s training allowance is unable to provide. Hence, they may perceive the outlines of the allowance bracket as more inhibiting when considering whether to take up the job.


2. Employee benefits


Trainees do not have an official employer-employee relationship with the company that they are attached to. That’s why companies are referred to as “host organisations”, and trainees are paid “training allowances” instead of salaries.


Since companies hosting trainees are effectively not employers, this translates to different obligations as compared to other permanent employment contracts:


  • Host companies are not obliged to provide trainees with non-monetary benefits such as accommodation, food and transportation.

  • Trainees do not get CPF contributions. Losing out on months of CPF can be a big deal especially for graduates planning to purchase their first homes, or mid-career individuals who have already committed to financial obligations using their CPF accounts.

  • Trainees are not protected under the Employment Act (EA). This means that trainees are not entitled to any mandatory annual or sick leave, overtime-pay or a notice period from the hosting company’s part, among other standards outlined by the Ministry of Manpower. Though host organisations are also encouraged by the government to provide a minimum of 7 days paid medical leave and 7 days paid annual leave on a goodwill basis, it is up to the companies’ own discretion to implement them.


A possible reason for the gray area outlining the obligations required by host organisations is because traineeships were never engineered to be a long-term solution to the employment crisis. For example, EA guidelines highlight that employees who have worked for employers for at least 3 months are entitled to paid annual leave. The duration for traineeships can go up to 6 months from April 2021 onwards, this means that trainees can exit their contract prematurely if they secure better opportunities outside. Thus, the non-compliance to EA gives more room for host organisations to enter an agreement without holding the shorter end of the stick. That said, the onus is largely on the trainees to negotiate their desired terms with the host organisation.


3. Uncertainty

Host organisations are not obligated to extend the trainees’ tenure beyond the agreed-upon length as stated in the contract. This means that a trainee’s conversion to a permanent role is not guaranteed. If a company wishes to convert their trainee into a permanent full-time role, they will need to iron out the details in a separate contract. If a full-time position is not offered before the traineeship ends, trainees will have to resume their job search.


Before considering a traineeship, it’s important to keep in mind that it was never designed to be a long-term solution. When possible, open up that conversation with your host companies early on about the timeline and likelihood of conversion. If the prospect of full-time conversion with the host organisation is unlikely, trainees must start actively searching for other opportunities before their contract is terminated. This means that they have to allocate time and resources on top of their full-time trainee role to apply for jobs and go for interviews.



The Pros


1. Security in Flexibility


On the upside of uncertainty, traineeships are designed for trainees to have more room to explore before settling. Because permanent conversion was positioned as a possibility instead of a guaranteed outcome, trainees have the flexibility to exit the traineeship program with no strings attached should better opportunities present themselves in the future. Traineeships thus give opportunities for individuals to dip their toes in various roles or sectors before deciding whether an industry or job role is suitable for them.


While it sounds awfully similar to the nature of internships, traineeships are geared more towards thrusting trainees into roles that (as much as possible) simulates those of full-time employees. In short, yes, it’s likely that you will be doing a permanent employee’s job at a rate that is below the market. However, if it boils down to unemployment as the worst-case scenario, traineeships do provide a lifeline during this time when jobseekers are still waiting for the market to pick up.


For those who can afford to take an exploratory approach to discover the right career for them, traineeships are viable options that can provide the depth of scope to learn industry-relevant skills with the promise of a certain degree of financial security as well.


2. Opportunity to break into any industry


Besides opportunities to gain valuable industry skillsets, the government’s additional support to defray manpower costs has opened doors for particular companies which may not have freed up slots for fresh graduates or mid-career individuals under non-pandemic circumstances.


More often than not, the roles offered by such companies only assess applicants who have had years of experience climbing up the career ladder. Companies that fall under this category could be more resource-strapped in nature, such as SMEs and startups. They could also be established MNCs who generally do not hire fresh graduates or offer entry-level positions.


If not for the training allowance co-funded by the government, such employment opportunities would have otherwise been reserved for interns or qualified applicants who can operate as jacks of all trades. Traineeships thus present a rare opportunity for trainees to experience how it’s like to run like full-time employees in such organisations. In doing so, trainees get first-hand experience on whether these companies are able to offer that alignment with their interests and long-term career goals



TL;DR: Evaluating the SGUnited Traineeships


Making the decision to take up a traineeship is just the beginning. In your journey, you’ll definitely wrestle with moments where you feel short-changed as a perfectly qualified entry-level or mid-career candidate for a permanent position.


No scheme is perfect. Some unscrupulous companies still lurk in the corners and look to exploit the gray areas of the scheme and shortchange qualified entry-level workers for cheaper labour. There have been accounts HR departments instructed to take down entry-level positions and replace them with traineeships, despite the company’s capacity to increase headcount given their own resources. (read some first-hand perspectives featured on SGUnited Traineeship Reddit threads here and here)


To view traineeships in one extreme can be limiting. Among the sea of traineeships offered by SGUnited, there are bound to be good-willed organisations that are genuinely looking to part with their wisdom and nurture their talent.


Money talks


For those who are still contemplating, money and the lack of CPF contribution remain the main deterring factor holding them back. Truth be told, it was the most concerning downside for me as well. Regarding the lack of CPF contribution, an alternate way to look at it is that your take-home pay is higher. Given the current circumstances with the pandemic, this may not be such a bad thing as your liquid assets are higher.


The onus is on you to save diligently for whatever big-ticket purchases you are planning for - this means cutting down on luxury purchases and making more informed spending decisions. It sucks, but it can be done. For me, what I found extremely helpful was to track my monthly expenses using this app called Money Manager.



Weighing SGUnited Traineeship opportunity costs


Weigh opportunity costs


Take a step back and evaluate the traineeship holistically from what you stand to lose and gain. When income takes a temporary backseat, think about what are the other possibilities that this traineeship is able to offer you.


You can use this career cost-benefit analysis to weigh your options. We’ve adapted this framework from Millennial Leadership’s evaluation on whether a worker should stay or leave their job. This framework has three facets: Exposure, Compensation and Desire.


Exposure: Will this traineeship help you get the positive exposure necessary to propel your career advancement in a specific field or sector?

Compensation: Does the training allowance compensate you in a manner that is reflective of your skills and capabilities?


Desire: Do you have the passion that resonates with the mission of your host organisation?


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