Singaporeans are increasingly seeking out meaningful, skilled labour, amid a growing push for better recognition and pay for such professions. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts of young people who have chosen careers in manual trades — and are thriving.
Here, Mr Charles Lee, 34, recounts his journey to becoming an automotive engineer at his family’s car workshop. Recognising a need for relevant skills beyond his mechanical engineering degree, Mr Lee earned a certificate at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and gained work experience before convincing his father that he could add value to the business.
My interest in the automotive industry started when I was eight. My father, a professional mechanic, would perform “magic” whenever he fired up a car engine that could not start. It fascinated me to no end.
By the time I turned 16, I was already helping out at his workshop during the December school holidays. I learnt to change engine oil and replace tyres. As I grew older, I was taught basic diagnosis skills.
Fast forward to 2015. I graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.
I got a job as a procurement engineer dealing with made-to-order parts and later, worked at a company that fabricated aerobridges.
I have always maintained an interest in joining the automotive industry. When I saw my family members struggling with the physical demands of the job as they got older, I decided to take the plunge.
In 2016, I started taking a part-time Nitec in Automotive Technology at Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College West.
My father was initially not keen on the move, asking me why I was studying at ITE when he had sent me to university. However, I went ahead because I wanted to get the technical knowledge required to help him and the family business.
I graduated with a Certificate of Merit one-and-a-half years later.
Recognising a gap in my knowledge about high voltage vehicles, I also enrolled in an Institute of Motor Industry course in Penang in 2018. There, I learnt how to safely handle high voltage automotive systems.
That same year, I joined Hyundai distributor Komoco Motors and stayed there for three years as an automotive engineer. I had the opportunity to travel to Korea to see technologies and receive training for vehicles that are not found in Singapore.
Being an engineer can be quite taxing physically.
During my training at Komoco, I was required to help take down and do a solo repair on a double clutch gearbox. At about 90kg, it was probably the heaviest load that I have ever carried.
However, an experienced mechanic told me how and where to use my body strength to do the repair without hurting myself. That came in handy in learning how to handle heavy loads.
I did a short stint with a Chinese battery company, before joining my family’s business in 2022.
Over time, my father accepted that my knowledge can improve customer experience, reduce costs to customers and improve our technology use.
For example, I helped to digitise all our invoices and expenses. This allowed us to quickly find our customers’ records.
We now know what was last done to their car, how much was charged, and how frequently a customer visits us. In turn, that gives us the freedom to offer appropriate discounts.
My family agrees too that it is time that I take on the responsibility to keep the business going.
Fortunately, I find this trade very interesting.
My job involves helping out with repairs while managing diagnostics and marketing.
A typical day starts when a vehicle comes in with an issue. I will diagnose the issue to determine the type of repairs required and get the required parts.
A common challenge I face is deciding on the right repairs for a vehicle while ensuring the customer’s budget is met. Sometimes, work and parts that look easy may be deceptively difficult.
However, I get satisfaction from learning the quirks of different vehicles and helping someone’s day turn from bad to good.
I also take pride in helping workers upskill. One of my proudest moments was when I successfully guided a worker through a complicated gearbox repair which he had never done before.
I feel my own unique background and experience will help the family business smoothly pivot to electric vehicles. Hopefully, with external investment, we can eventually be a dealer for green vehicles.
If I ever have kids who want to follow in my footsteps, my advice to them would be to get industry experience to build up their reputation and credibility, embrace new technologies and always do the right thing for the customers that put their faith in you.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Mr Charles Lee, 34, is an automotive engineer at Autofriend. He is currently working to improve his skills to grow his family’s business.
If you have an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.