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Monday, June 21, 2021, 09:51
New-generation handymen get smart in the home
By Asia News Network / The Straits Times
Monday, June 21, 2021, 09:51 By Asia News Network / The Straits Times

Digitization is trend, but traditional services still in demand

Home appliances maker Midea will promote its IoT ecosystem linking all products of the company to HarmonyOS. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The notion of the "handyman" has changed in recent years with the emergence of smart-home devices programmed to switch on the television or switch off the lights.

Services provided by handymen today include synchronizing gadgets and appliances to a Wi-Fi network, enabling them to "talk" to one another.

Through this series of connected devices, or the internet of things, high-tech handymen carry out repairs remotely. The sector-with its emphasis on electronics, artificial intelligence and information technology-has had no problems attracting young talent.

In Singapore, Eski Quek, 35, co-founded the home automation company Home Action Party with his brother Aaden seven years ago. A typical day for them involves connecting a residence wirelessly.

"Our main home automation services include ensuring good network and Wi-Fi coverage so that property owners can seamlessly and remotely control their homes through an app on their smartphones," Eski Quek said.

"The home automation app keeps both the homeowner and our service team in the loop."

The Queks' company works on about three new projects a month and employs five full-time staff members, each of whom has a national certificate in electronics engineering.

Many homes today are equipped with smart bulbs, plugs, sensors, security cameras and other devices.

For example, with a smart speaker, it is easy to switch smart lights on or off, dim them or change the color of the bulbs. A smart plug can be set to turn on a plugged-in kettle at a specific time each morning, so that there is always hot water when the occupants wake.

Children interact with a Baidu robot during an expo in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province. (ZHAI HUIYONG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Sensors that detect motion, temperature, brightness and humidity are key to making a home truly smart. The information collected by these small, low-power devices is sent wirelessly to a smart hub, which collates and uses the data to trigger specific actions. For instance, a smart bulb switches on automatically when a motion sensor detects a person entering a room.

Although digitization is the trend, some areas of the home still require the services of traditional handymen for tasks such as plumbing and repairing appliances.

Before COVID-19 took hold in Singapore, many of these jobs were done by handymen from overseas, but with borders closed since March last year due to the pandemic, employers in the sector have found it difficult to recruit workers to help them expand business.

According to a recent report in The Straits Times, the number of non-resident workers employed in Singapore fell by 181,500 last year.

Evorich, a Singaporean company established in 2003, which specializes in flooring installation and repairs, is one of the businesses facing a shortage of Malaysian workers.

Dennis Teo, the company's founder, said that in addition to laying floor tiles, a significant part of the company's work involves repairing floorboards and tiles damaged by accidents or through wear and tear.

At its peak in 2019, Evorich employed more than 70 skilled handymen from Malaysia, Vietnam and other countries. There are now some 50 blue-collar foreign workers on the payroll-eight of them Malaysians.

"I would like to employ at least four or five more Malaysian workers so that the company is able to meet project deadlines," Teo, 46, said. "Since the pandemic arrived, we have not been able to accelerate the maintenance and repair work for which we depend on our Malaysian handymen."

Low Hun Mong, 55, the founder of Mong Lee Renovation Contractor, who has been in the business since 1990, said he has faced difficulties for the past 20 years in hiring younger Singaporeans.

"Handyman and renovation jobs are too hard and sweaty for most Singaporeans," he said.

An attendee checks out air conditioners displayed at a Skyworth booth during the 2021 Appliance & Electronics World Expo in Shanghai on March 24. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Low currently employs a Singaporean in his 50s and three younger workers from Malaysia, India and Bangladesh for tasks such as clearing clogged pipes, repairing toilets and demolishing walls.

Alfred Tan, 69, who has worked in the trade for nearly 40 years, said, "There is good money to be made, as home owners always need help with a faulty switch or a leaky tap, but you need to get your hands dirty and you have to deal with all kinds of people who are not happy to pay for the time taken to do the repairs."

Fuad Basarahil, 44, founder of Mr Fixit, employs three Singaporeans age 25 to 45 on a freelance basis. They help him provide services such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical work.

His company charges about 30 Singapore dollars (US$22.60) to replace a bulb and around S$90 to change a water tap.

"I want to give Singaporeans a chance to learn the trade, rather than have to deal with filling in endless paperwork to get a foreign worker," he said.

"Young Singaporeans always look for greener pastures and easier work with more pay. Only those who are 'hungry' to learn the trade will stay, and they are usually older, more mature workers."

He added that traditional services such as clearing a clogged pipe or repairing a leaking toilet are not for the faint-hearted.

"You have to think on your feet. For example, when removing a screw, and the screw head breaks, what then? You cannot use the screwdriver in your toolkit, so you have to think around the problem-fast."

Basarahil said being a handyman also means not specializing in any one task, which enables him and his team to accept more jobs each day.

"We do everything, from minor electrical and plumbing work to carpentry and installing flat-packed furniture and items bought online. You could say we are the after-sales service crew for interior designers and contractors when they have finished their projects," he said.

Visitors check out Samsung smart home appliances during the second China International Import Expo in Shanghai. (JIN LIWANG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Different roles

Home automation technician Gng Soon Meng, 27, believes that handymen are no longer just plumbers, carpenters or electricians.

"They are technicians," said the 27-year-old, who has worked in this capacity for Home Action Party since 2018, shortly after graduating with a certificate in electronics engineering from the Institute of Technical Education, or ITE, in Singapore.

"Today's handymen are very different. We do a lot of technical support after the initial work of setting up the internet technology infrastructure for a smart home," he said.

ITE offers a range of part-time courses on home maintenance and automation. The courses include certificate of competency studies in basic plumbing and residential wiring, smart-home systems and do-it-yourself repairs for devices enabled by the internet of things.

Gng said as much as 80 percent of a residence can be automated using the latest smart-home technology. With a smart grid, repairs can also be carried out remotely, eliminating the need for on-site services.

"Repairs and maintenance make up about 30 percent of our work," he added.

He said that more young people are being attracted to high-tech work such as home automation, as all they need to get started are a smartphone and internet access.

Brothers Eski and Aaden Quek established Home Action Party in 2014, the year the authorities in Singapore launched the Smart Nation drive to transform and improve government, businesses and society with digital technology.

"We started in a 15-square-meter co-working office, which was just enough space for a television and to display products on a table," co-director Eski Quek said.

Two years later, the brothers moved to a proper showroom to display their home automation products.

By December, they had relocated to a 1,500-sq-ft showroom and office space designed to give customers an idea of how home automation works.

Aaden Quek, 30, said, "In the past few years, we have progressed from a home automation experience showroom to showing how we build up systems before we deliver them to homes and offices."

The company's charges for home automation start at S$5,000 for a three-room public housing apartment. It charges between S$150 and S$300 for after-sales support.

The brothers also have an internship program for ITE students, in which they share the latest technologies.

Eski Quek said: "It's always an eyeopening experience for them. In traditional home services, there is carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and air-conditioning, but we are the new normal-a new utility service that takes care of home technology."

Edmond Wong, 51, who works in the travel industry, recently hired the company to install a home automation network in his five-room apartment.

He said having the entire property wired as a smart home allows him to control all the lights in the rooms, as well as the electrical appliances, with just a few taps of an app on his phone.

"This saves energy and is also convenient," said Wong, who has spent about S$15,000 on home automation rewiring.

"There are also fewer on-site visits. When things don't work, such as the lighting, the handymen from the company simply rectify the problem remotely, as they are constantly in the loop through their network monitoring system."

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