02 November 2012

Being Productive

02 November 2012

Secretary-General Lim Swee Say's comments that workforce growth will slow in the years to come featured prominently in the morning papers. I agree with him. We cannot continue to grow the local workforce size as we have done over the years, at some 3% per annum. In fact, the Economic Strategies Committee's report had said we would need to look at half of that growth i.e. some 1.5% per annum going forward. At the same time, foreign workforce growth will slow - as we calibrate and prevent an over-generation of jobs that would then lead to an unsustainable outcome for our society and infrastructure as a whole.

This is not an issue of whether it is good or bad. We are at a stage of development where we need to move forward on a different footing. Opportunities remain even as the global economy remains uncertain. It is therefore a chance for us to transform our economy to a productivity-led one. Our labour market will remain tight for some time to come. Even as we re-structure, we need to ensure that employment growth is moderated at a sustainable pace, and to keep a close watch on our unemployment rate. Manpower will move to businesses that are more competitive. Firms who truly embrace the productivity mindset and innovate will also come out stronger as a whole.

So just how can companies embrace and start their own productivity journeys? This morning, I visited the Cube 8 construction site to see for myself what is possible. Our level of productivity in construction today is just over a third (35%) of the level seen in Japan, an international leader in this field. We must do better.

Cube 8 is being developed by City Developments Limited (CDL) with Dragages Singapore Pte Ltd as the main builder. This Cube 8 project is a good example of how buildable designs can help to improve productivity. Starting up stream, they used Building Information Model (BIM) technology in the design phase – this makes a tremendous amount of difference. This is fast catching on in the industry and BCA strongly promotes it.

They actively use prefabricated bathroom units and dry walls. While these precast and prefab components cost more, they utilise fewer workers and help builders to complete their projects earlier. I understand that the material cost (per m2) for dry wall and brick wall construction is about $50-$60 and $45-$55 respectively. However, as construction using drywall is at least two times faster compared to brick walls, the overall cost does not differ too much between the two wall systems. With more dry wall suppliers coming into the market, the cost of dry walling is becoming more competitive. Many contractors complain that the worksite is too cramped to do prefab work. Here, we can see how the company carries that out on site. It is all about having progressive mindsets. Unfortunately, not all developers and contractors are prepared to try, and major players have an even bigger responsibility to do so.

Mr Thierry Brezac (centre), Project Director, Dragages Singapore, explaining to Minister the installation process of a Prefab Bathroom Unit (PBU). The hoisting of a PBU is in process in the background. 
Hoisting of a pre-cast slab, which was pre-fabricated on-site, in progress. 
 Mr Thierry Brezac (left), Project Director, Dragages Singapore, highlighting the excellence acoustic performance of a drywall installed in a completed apartment unit. Looking on is Dr John Keung, BCA’s CEO.
Dragages worked closely with construction sub-contractors like Stonrich Pte Ltd to ensure knowledge transfers and eventually help these companies to achieve better work processes. Stonrich supplies and installs high quality stone products such as marble and granite in buildings. Thanks to Dragages having an in-house stone specialist who was able to advise them on the specifications of marbles needed, they were then able to prefabricate the marbles in factories and install them efficiently on site. This has enabled them to produce marble profiles for at least four to five average-sized bathrooms a day with one worker, compared to just one bathroom if they were to do the cutting on-site.  And because the marble slabs were cut in factories, there was better quality control and almost no rectification work was needed.

This is a good example of how main contractors can involve subcontractors in the productivity drive. We want to see more progressive builders working hand in hand with subcontractors to grow productivity for the industry as a whole. More importantly, we want to encourage bigger boys – who naturally have more resources and capabilities - to assist their subcontractors in embracing new technologies and improving their work processes i.e. play big brother.

All the above-mentioned initiatives will also create a cleaner, less noisy and safer environment. I am sure there is a value that one can attach to averting disamenities.

Companies must also pay attention to their people. For Dragages, they retain their talents by prioritizing their workers’ welfare and training. In turn, workers become more committed to work there in the long term. Melissa, a 27 year old engineer, shared with me that her supervisors motivate her and continuously give her opportunities to grow. For instance, she was given the chance to start a project from scratch, beginning with tenders, costing and design for the Cube 8 and 368 Thomson projects. She has been working in Dragages for over 4 years since her internship before her graduation. The other employee, 40-year-old Doris, has been with the company since 1998. She worked through the ranks and is now a cost control manager with Dragages. She shared with me how she liked that the management of the company placed great emphasis on work safety and promotes a healthy workplace.

Minister chatting with Doris (to his left) and Melissa (to his right), two outstanding ladies who have taken a less conventional career path to join the construction industry as professionals.
This strong focus on workplace safety and health (WSH) prevents injuries and save lives, as well as reduce business down-time arising from work accidents. In the first half of this year, 265,057 man-days were lost to WSH incidents. This is a significant loss of productivity for the companies involved. By preventing such accidents in the first place, companies will be saving lives and also doing their part for productivity at the same time.

The Government will help. One way is through the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund (CPCF), of which approximately $72 million out of the $250 million have been committed to-date. Currently, more than 2000 firms have benefited from the CPCF. BCA will continue to conduct one-to-one Productivity Clinics to advise firms, big and small, on productivity issues and incentive schemes available.

I am very happy to see bigger companies taking the initiative to be more productive. I am also happy that some developers are also setting the direction for all its contractors in terms of higher productivity, quality, sustainability and safety standards.

What we now need is for more to come on board and grow a more forward-looking mindset!

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin
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