Joseph Samy is a late bloomer who did not make the grade many times in his younger years. But he persevered in upgrading his skills and qualifications. And that has enabled him to move up from being a technician to an engineer now managing a team of 60.
Today, Mr Joseph Samy is an engineer who has an MBA, managing a team of technicians at Singapore Power.
But ask him if he ever thought he would be where he is now, and the 48 year-old laughs.
“Never. I never thought I would become an engineer.”
As a teenager at Naval Base Secondary School, the normal stream student was satisfied to study just enough to pass every exam and move to the next level.
He fared badly for his N-Level exams, not doing well enough to take his O-Levels. His only option was to enrol in the Electrical Fittings and Installation course at the then-Vocational Industrial Training Board (VITB).
Back in those days, there was a stigma of being a VITB student, said Joseph. He felt so embarrassed that he would change into the school shirt only when he got to the campus.
But a change in education policy lowered the requirement for N-Level students to do their O-Levels, allowing Joseph to take his O-Levels. Still, he did not make the cut to progress to the polytechnic, and went to the Singapore Technical Institute (STI) instead.
STI was established to meet the industry’s requirement for industrial technicians. Its courses helped bridge the gap between the trade courses offered at VITB and the three-year technical diploma courses at Singapore Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Technical College.
Running a focused race
It was at STI that things started to turn around for Joseph.
He turned to athletics, a sport which he had excelled in during his secondary school days. It was a useful discipline to both his mind and body, especially since the coaches were strict task masters. He ran the sprints and did the relays, representing STI at various national schools events and brought home trophies.
As he put in more effort at STI than at secondary school, Joseph managed to pass the exams. But it still was not good enough to qualify for a spot in a polytechnic. So he took up a job as a technician at the Public Utilities Board (PUB) after his National Service stint. It was a job where he could apply his knowledge and training well.
Even though he was happy working as a technician, Joseph was also constantly on the lookout to upgrade himself. His older colleagues and mentors advised him to take up courses so that he can improve his skills and rise up the ladder by taking on different job roles. It was advice he took to heart: Joseph attended all kinds of courses from safety regulations to computer studies.
He also opted to study part-time for a diploma in electrical engineering at the Singapore Polytechnic, working during the day and attending classes at night.
In his final year at the polytechnic, some of his classmates wanted to further their studies at the University of Aberdeen and asked him to join them. He hesitated for a variety of reasons.
Getting an overseas degree was expensive. He was already in his mid-20s and had yet to establish his career. More than that, he did not think he had the ability to complete the course.
“I have always enjoyed doing maths but just didn’t do well enough to do A-Math, which is a base requirement for engineering. That sapped my confidence,” he said
But after mulling over it for some time, he decided not to give up the chance to further improve himself.
“My family and friends kept encouraging me to do it, telling me that it was a good opportunity to upgrade myself. So I did it.”
He withdrew all the money he had been saving for a car, borrowed from his friends and family and stumped out $55,000 for tuition fees and accommodation.
Taking a leave of absence from his job, he flew to Scotland and spent two years there, earning himself a degree at the age of 29, before coming back to resume his career at PUB, then renamed Singapore Power.
That, however, was not the end of his learning journey. Having seen the value of upgrading himself through lifelong learning, Joseph continued to pick up certificates in management, training and assessment.
In fact, he went on to take another diploma in supply chain management.
“I wanted some diversification and [the study of] supply chain cuts across all sectors. So you never know when you might need this,” he explained.
In between all the training and working, he even managed to find time to do an MBA from the University of Western Australia.
The learning has paid off. He has since moved up progressively from a technician to a full-fledged engineer. The relatively late start to his engineering career did not slow his progress.
A few years ago, he was selected to be part of Singapore Power’s talent scheme, which gave him the opportunity to go to one of its Australian units to help with the operation, where he leads a team of 60 staff who look after the cables that transmit electricity throughout the island.
If there is one thing that Joseph attributes his success to, it is skills upgrading. In fact, echoing his mentors, he now constantly persuades the technicians under his charge to take up training courses.
“I encourage them to go and do their part-time diplomas. I will recommend and give my support for them to get company sponsorships as well.” he said.
“I told them: ‘You can't be a technician forever’,” he smiled.