SINGAPORE: Mr Wee Pang Chun has had so many jobs that he cannot remember all of them. The 25-year-old, who has mild intellectual disability, started working after graduating from secondary school.
Until recently, he worked at NTUC FairPrice as a store assistant for two years, his longest stint yet. But he found the work boring and went looking for another job.
After approaching various agencies for help with finding a new job, he was introduced to Inclus, a startup that helps the differently abled find jobs and stay in them.
Pang Chun underwent a four-week training camp with Inclus, and was placed in a position at Far East Orchid, where he was paid about S$500 per month.
Six months later, the Inclus team who tracked his progress, found that he had become a more capable worker, and placed him in a packing job with Bollore Logistics, where he now earns S$1,300 per month.
Adding that his colleagues are friendly and willing to guide him, Pang Chun said he is thankful to Inclus for the support and the opportunity to learn more things in a different company.
“They supported me a lot, now I feel more confident. I feel happy, I can buy anything I want," he said, adding that he can give his parents money if they need it now that he is earning more, and plans to stay in this job unless there is a better opportunity.
Co-founder of Inclus Mr Anders Tan is not new to the employment problems faced by those with special needs or disabilities.
After seeing his brother-in-law, who has high functioning autism, drop out of three jobs and fired from his fourth in a matter of months, Anders decided to take action to help others like him.
With Mr Shaun Tan and Mr Arudra Vangal, who also has autism, he founded Inclus in July 2018, a startup that helps people with special needs and disabilities not just to secure jobs but stay in them.
“In the course of my journey, for 27 years I experienced a lack of education expertise, job opportunities, behavioural support and social acceptance, which is typical in the world of young ASD (autism spectrum disorder) adults,” said Arudra.
Many companies still see hiring those with special needs or disabilities as doing a good deed, Anders observed.
“When we sell to corporates, the first thing that we always tell them is, if you’re doing this for CSR (corporate social responsibility), then you might not be the right fit.
“We are bringing someone of value to your organisation, someone who can do the work that you’re asking for, and you will build up the capabilities of this person because you know this person will stay in your organisation, so there’s longevity.
“Otherwise, if you’re seeing this as CSR, then once your funding runs out, maybe this (employee) will become not essential.”
A new wage offset scheme, alongside enhancements to an existing training grant, will be introduced to enhance the employment of persons with disabilities (PWDs), announced Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad on Mar 3 during the Committee of Supply debate.
The new Enabling Employment Credit (EEC) will be available from 2021 to 2025 at a cost of about S$31 million a year, and is set to replace two existing wage offset schemes – the Special Employment Credit and Additional Special Employment Credit schemes – that are due to expire at the end of this year.
In September 2019, Mr Zaqy said in Parliament that nearly three in 10 persons with disabilities (PWDs) who are of working age are employed.
The resident employment rate was 28.6 per cent among PWDs in the working ages of 15 to 64, he said. Another 4.2 per cent of PWDs in this age range were without a job and actively looking for one, translating to a resident unemployment rate of 12.9 per cent, he said.
Mr Zaqy said that the remaining two-thirds of PWDs in this age group were “outside the labour force”, with most of them citing poor health or disability as the main reason.
TRAINING FOR CORPORATES, INDIVIDUALS
Anders believes firms who hire the differently-abled can benefit from more training in how to manage them.
“So what we are seeing in the market is that people are hiring people with special needs or disabilities. But none of them can keep them for long enough,” he added.
He noted that the lack of support for differently abled individuals starting a new job could cause friction within teams, especially if co-workers do not know what to expect.
For example, a typical individual with special needs or disabilities may receive about two hours of support per week from a job coach when they join a new organisation, said Anders.
But integration "doesn't just happen" over two hours, he stressed.
"You need to observe (the person) over a period of time, talk to their colleagues, make the colleagues understand their conditions, and get them to work together and create an environment for them. That requires time and effort," said Anders, adding that many individuals who are not well-supported leave the organisation after three to six months.
This is why, at Incus, they receive a full month of training before they are officially placed into employment.
Inclus secures job positions with companies who want to hire differently-abled individuals before opening up corresponding training programmes for the individuals, said Shaun.
The four-week training programme comprises two weeks of internal assessment and classroom training and another two weeks of practical on-site training.
Before the individuals are placed in the organisation, the Inclus team also meets with company management to provide inclusivity training for the management, hiring managers and the departments that the individuals will be joining.
“Let’s say there are individuals with autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) joining the organisation. We will explain the conditions to them, and how they should handle it,” said Shaun.
During the practical onsite training, Inclus’ life skills coaches will observe and support the individuals at work for two weeks. This will also give employers an idea of what to expect post-training.
“We can immediately see a lot of things. Are they hyper or hypo sensitive to lights and sound? Is the environment something they are comfortable with?” said Shaun.
“That is also the part where we talk to their colleagues who will be working with them directly, because the person directly with them has to understand how to manage them.”
Once the training is complete, Inclus will match those who are deemed suitable for the job with the employers. Since its first training run in March 2019, the startup has placed 14 out of 20 individuals into jobs. They also have available positions in accounting, admin, finance, technology, retail, F&B and logistics.
SG Enable funds up to 90 per cent of Inclus’ train and place programme, and trainees can expect to pay between S$350 and S$1,350, said Anders.
Inclus describes itself as a "social business". Companies who partner them pay a fee for the support given. Anders said the response has been “very good” so far, estimating that between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of the companies they approach ending up as partners.
One such employer, Bollore Logistics, has opened up eight job positions to Inclus for placement, and intends to scale up the number by expanding the project to more sites as it progresses, said a spokesperson. Two people have been placed with the company, which is the logistics arm of the French Bollore Group, so far.
"We firmly believe in tapping into non-traditional sources of workforce in Singapore and have been working closely with local organisations to hire and integrate persons with disabilities into the workforce," said the spokesperson.
"This collaboration has enabled us to reach out to a prospective source of manpower while bolstering our steps towards better social integration."
Adding that the company is happy to have them, she said: "Overall, they are as capable as anyone else and we hope to see them grow with Bollore."
Shaun said that companies often hire differently abled individuals for roles with high turnover rates because employers recognise that they may be more loyal.
"So there comes another group of untapped workforce, who can potentially be as productive, if not more. And the loyalty in this group really is higher," he added.
The startup is also one of 268 companies that will work with the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) this year on a work-study diploma programme. The diplomas, which were first launched in April 2018, allow students to be hired as full-time salaried staff and graded by the companies and the ITE at the end of their course.
THE COST OF UNEMPLOYMENT
Stressing that the employers are responsible for imparting the actual skills required for the individual to carry out the job, the training at Inclus focuses more on soft skills like making friends and being part of a group, said Shaun.
This is important because once differently-abled individuals graduate from secondary school, especially those with special needs, they no longer have an individualised educational programme, he added. This could make the transition to an institute of higher learning (IHL) or employment very challenging.
“If regression happens then, then when they graduate (from IHLs), the amount of work that needs to be done to place them into a job or to help them be part of society will be even more,” said Shaun.
He also highlighted that the cost to families will be even greater if a differently-abled child graduates from school and is unable to find a job.
According to Ms Cheng Oi Lin, a job coach with SG Enable’s School-to-Work programme, more companies have been open to hiring persons with intellectual disabilities or autism as they recognise the value of inclusive hiring and that persons with disabilities are “an untapped talent pool”.
“Some employers hesitate to hire persons with intellectual disabilities or autism as they may have negative perceptions about them, such as them being less productive. They may also be unsure of how to interact and work with them,” she said.
“With training and workplace accommodation, the perceived barriers of inclusive hiring can be lowered, and obstacles can be overcome.”
“MANY INTANGIBLE BENEFITS ON MULTIPLE LEVELS”
Since 2014, SG Enable has placed more than 2,600 persons with disabilities in jobs and over 1,000 companies have hired persons with disabilities through SG Enable, said assistant chief executive Tan Ko We.
“We are also progressively building up the pool of companies that are ready to hire persons with disabilities. Since 2014, about 5,000 staff from various companies have attended training programmes organised by SG Enable,” he added.
Although there has been progress, Anders thinks employers could still afford to be more inclusive and hiring processes should be more diversified.
“It’s no fault of (the employers), it’s because the culture is not there. When we grow up, we are differentiated by special needs and mainstream in schools. An individual like us may grow up not knowing that there are actually differently abled individuals in society,” he said.
Shaun added that a detailed business profile and personalised training for both the individual and the employer serves to reduce misunderstandings and miscommunication between the two parties.
“Having all this will help an employer have empathy,” he added.
“Because if we use what we understand of the typical workforce and slap it on them, we will say this is unacceptable, and that’s why a lot of them don’t stay in jobs for long.”