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Management trainees share their experiences within the maritime industry (Part 2)

When faced with tough career decisions, many of us tend to turn to our family and friends for perspective. After all, there are few who know us better.

Kent Heng, 27, Assistant Tonnage Manager at The China Navigation Company (CNCo), is thankful to have lucked out in this aspect. As a fresh Economics graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Kent had initially focused on opportunities in the finance industry. But while poring over the school’s career newsletter, he came across a management trainee opportunity with the global maritime player. The chance to work in an industry sector so deeply ingrained in Singapore’s heritage and culture, as a maritime nation, intrigued Kent.

Turning over the idea in his head, Kent sought advice from his father – the elder Mr Heng being a seasoned expert in the freight forwarding line. The enterprising young man also hit up his personal network for advice on joining CNCo’s management trainee programme.

The answer? A resounding yes on both fronts.

In the second part of our series on management trainee programmes in the maritime industry, Kent tells us what it was like for him, diving into the world of CNCo’s management trainee programme.

Getting onboard with the CNCo management trainee programme

As it turns out, CNCo has years under its belt in helping to train and grow Singapore’s maritime workforce. Going into its 4th batch of the management trainee programme, CNCo has refined the programme over the years to tailor to the changing needs of fresh graduates like Kent. Like many other programmes, CNCo offers structured rotations across its various departments, to give trainees a good flavour of each team’s expertise, and how they all come together in the larger business.

There’s just one more incredible perk that only the maritime industry is likely to offer: the chance to travel.

“Our management trainee programme is structured to offer a broad overview of the company and map out career progression options for our trainees,” says Taneal Roach, Global Head of Human Resources at CNCo. “We are keen to give our trainees a hands-on experience within our business – and at the core of this is our liner shipping services, so it makes sense to show them how it works out at sea as well.”

Kent was all for the experience. Diving right into CNCo’s management trainee programme, he joined a multicultural crew of 22 people from more than five countries. In the five weeks to follow, Kent would travel around the Pacific Islands, visiting the ports of places he had only seen in textbooks and newspapers prior.

“If you had asked me at the start whether these were experiences I would have expected to gain from the programme, the answer would have been a no,” says Kent.


“But was it something I loved? Yes. Would I go back and do it all over again? Yes, definitely.” – Kent Heng, Assistant Manager of Tonnage, CNCo, on his former days as a management trainee.


Kent with his fellow batchmates from CNCo's management trainee programme, onboard the vessel MV Shaoshing

At sea, Kent also brushed up on his soft skills: listening to and understanding the rich, varied backgrounds of the crew onboard, and learning to take pride and heart in his everyday work helping the crew members. “It goes beyond any training courses or shadowing duties in other programmes,” says Kent. “It also taught me the importance of being responsible, and how our business impacts the everyday lives of our people on the vessels.”

Taneal explains, “We take in people from a variety of academic backgrounds, so it’s not necessarily about the type of degree. It’s the generalist acumen and soft skills we are looking for, such as flexibility, adapting well to changing situations, and alignment to our Swire values. The idea of sending our people to different regions is to enrich their experiences, so that they can share their learnings from other regions and markets with our network.”

Traditionally, Taneal notes, there may have been a reluctance among younger people to the idea of travelling globally for training. However, they see this as being a key personality trait to fit within their international company.


“We are starting to see more young people like Kent, who want to be internationally mobile. And that’s exactly the kind of person we are looking for! People who are willing to take risks and go on adventure, who want change and opportunity.” – Taneal Roach, Global Head of HR, CNCo, on the company’s choice to offer international exposure and training as part of its management trainee programme.


Continuing an adventure, on shore

Developed for trainees across a range of different disciplines, the CNCo management trainee programme is built to groom the company’s future leadership. These include on-the-job training with different departments on technical aspects of the work, such as learning key shipping terms and processes, as well as working on various projects or transactions. Trainees are also taken through intensive sessions with close guidance and feedback from the company’s senior management, reflecting CNCo’s strong open-door policy and culture. The programme generally follows a structured rotation plan, designed to help fresh entrants understand the maritime industry, and CNCo’s way of working.

But ever ready to try out something new, Kent put his hand up when it came to the rotation exercise.

Could he try a department beyond the standard rotation pool? He asked.

Kent had his eye on a specific department: Tonnage.

Derived from the taxation paid on ‘tuns’, or casks of wine, tonnage, in modern maritime and shipping lingo, refers to the cargo-carrying capacity or volume of a ship. At CNCo, the Tonnage department handles the sale and purchase of vessels, the building of new vessels in shipyards, and the green recycling of vessels once they have reached the end of their economic useful lives. The Tonnage department has typically taken on individuals with more years of experience, but in Kent’s case, HR felt that he was a good fit for the team.

“We are always open to hear from our trainees on how they want to develop their skills further, and to adapt our training programme accordingly,” muses Taneal. “And it was clear to our senior management team that Kent had the right skillsets to tackle the tricky aspects of tonnage work.”

Kent with his colleagues from CNCo during one of the company's social events

Weighing in on transactions

Today, Kent pulls off a variety of key responsibilities: from the sale and purchase of ships, to project management on shipbuilding operations, financial modelling, and market research on assets that could be traded or sold. Most recently, he completed a vessel sale transaction worth over US$10 million – a cross-departmental feat that had required months of hard work and negotiations.

While his days as a management trainee are over, Kent considers them integral to his current work and continues to be part of the broader management development program.

“As a management trainee, I had the benefit of early insight and guidance on how different departments come together to pull off a particular business or project. This gave me a good understanding of how my current work supports the whole process, and how the decisions I make can help my colleagues,” Kent says.

From household necessities to the computer he uses at work – “almost everything we use in our daily lives pass through shipping in the long supply chain,” Kent notes. “Knowing that I’m helping to bring essential goods and services to people across the world, especially to remote places where people are in dire need of resources, brings meaning to my everyday work.”

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