17-year old Toh Sze Yi looks just like any other teenager, but while most 17-year-olds are fretting over tests and CCAs, Toh is looking sharp in her seafarer cadet uniform.
While most of her peers are in school chasing paper qualifications, Toh picked a path many never even heard of. She is on a three-year course to become a Seafarer officer.
Seafarers are what we traditionally know as sailors. They are the men and women who work on ships to ensure the vessels operate smoothly and arrive at their intended destinations in one piece. Seafarer officers, simply put, are management level seafarers.
A dream since 14
When quizzed on why she wants to be a seafarer, the shy Toh shared how a cruise holiday when she was 14 sparked her interest in the seas.
"I asked my father how did the cruise ship move because it was very interesting that something so big could be moving by itself on the water," she recounted with a laugh.
Ever since that day out at sea, Toh knew she wanted to do something within the maritime industry when she grew up.
Instead of choosing maritime related courses in the polytechnics, she chanced upon Tripartite Nautical Training Award (TNTA) Programme, an initiative by the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union (SMOU). She applied to be part of its seventh cohort.
"I just wanted to give it a try," quipped Toh who is one of 30 cadets selected out of 300 applicants for the TNTA. Cadets are picked by TNTA partner shipping companies. The companies will employ the cadets once they complete the TNTA.
A level playing field, qualifications wise
As a cadet officer, trainees like Toh will draw about US$1,100 in monthly salary, regardless of qualification. It does not matter whether you are a degree or diploma holder, and in the case of Toh, an N-level certificate holder.
Once cadets complete the TNTA course, they will be promoted to 3rd Officers and their monthly pay will more than double to US$2,500. The Captain of a ship, 3 ranks above a 3rd Officer, earns between US$7,000 to US$20,000.
A rose among thorns
Toh is only one of two female cadets of the TNTA's seventh cohort. When asked how she felt when people viewed seafaring as an occupation traditionally dominated by males, the resolute Toh said that as long as she puts in the effort to do her job well, it mattered not whether she was a male or female.
On the physically demanding nature of the job, Toh believed that no one aboard the ship should be working alone. "Working as a team is how things should be done. It is a team effort," she shared.
For an average 17-year old, long periods of time away from home and the lack creature comforts such as access to social media and a comfortable bed would surely put them off seafaring. For Toh, she explained that although the work would be tough, she would relish in the opportunity to chase her dreams of working at sea.
"It is everything I wanted to do, I won't have any regrets," she said with a twinkle of excitement and trepidation in her eyes.