I did not tell the full story behind my absence from blogging in the previous few months. Something else had kept me busy. A friend HP who knew the insider story, asked, “Why didn’t you write about your vending machine endeavour for your son?”
That is indeed the biggest story I have yet to tell. Simply told, it’s a story about a father who bought a snack vending machine for his adolescent autistic son in the hope that he will be able to earn his own keep one day.
The big question is, did things work out just like the way the father had imagined?
Bringing the family together on a mission
Originally, I had my eyes on buying two vending machines. After some negotiations, I went ahead with only one. And my proposal for machine placement was timely approved just a few days before Christmas day last year. It became a Christmas day gift.
In the presence of my wife and children, I pointed to the machine and said to my elder son excitedly, “Cairn, this is your machine. You are now the owner! And you have a job to do!”
We changed Kyan’s name last year to “Cairn”, pronounced as “can”– another story that I might tell on a separate occasion.
Then, turning to my younger son, Conan, I said, “The machine is your brother’s. He will have to learn how to run the daily operation like replenishing the snacks and so on. But he cannot run the business alone. Your brother needs you. So do I.”
A baffled expression surfaced on Conan’s face as he wondered what his old man had up his sleeves this time.
“You learn things a lot faster than anyone in the family.”
Conan nodded as I continued,
“I need you to learn everything about the machine and the business quickly so that we can help your brother make a living.”
“This is also a great opportunity for you to pick up some business skills,” I added with a chuckle, “Let’s see if you have the making of a good Chief Executive Officer (CEO).”
“CEO?” Conan and my wife laughed at my suggestion while Cairn watched on, half-comprehending what was going on, though he was grinning as he examined the machine.
Adding to their laughter, I went on, “That’s it! Cairn is the owner of our first machine. Conan will be the CEO. Mom will be the financial controller. As for me, I’ll be the…” I stumbled for words. In a split moment, however, I found my words and cracked a joke, “I’ll be the founder! That means it’s my job to find things for everyone to do!’
My wife rolled her eyes in dismay.
“Hey, take it easy,” I said reassuringly, “I’ll do everything and take care of all expenses incurred. That makes me the number one worker and also the investor.”
Then I explained my idea, “However, I think my most important role is to be Cairn’s job coach. There’ll be a lot of tasks that I need your help to organise so that Cairn can work independently. And we’ll have to coach him at every step of the way. Just imagine the day Cairn can check the stock, refill the snacks and collect his earning. Wouldn’t that be great? ”
True enough, Cairn rose to the occasion on the tasks he was given.
He enjoys his work so much that he reminds me every evening after dinner, “Papa, let’s go to the vending machine now!”
One day, I feigned ignorance and asked him, “To do what?”
Cairn replied with a big grin, “To refill snacks!”
I told him, “Tell your mom before you go down.”
Cairn literally bellowed, “Mama, I am going to the vending machine now!”
I urged Cairn to say more, “And to?”
“Refill snacks!” He said aloud, beaming in confidence.
Mom was busy with household chores and did not seem to hear him.
I whispered into Cairn’s ear and he repeated my words aloud, “Mama, I am going to make money! See you later!’
Cairn’s words made my wife reply with laughter and enthusiasm, “You are going to make money? Okay! See you later!”
Five Principles for Job Creation
I did not plan to start a business, but had to register a business entity to get things done. On hindsight, I have started the Caresons Social Enterprise for a simple mission — to enable disadvantaged people like Cairn lead a productive life.
The employment prospect for people with special needs is bleak. The Straits Times estimated that only 5% of people with special needs are employed in Singapore, the lowest among developed countries.
In contrast, nearly 20% of people with disabilities in the US and Japan have employment. And the percentage goes up to 40% in Australia, Britain and Germany. It’s an irony that the people of Singapore enjoy full-employment and the economy creates more than 1 million jobs that attract foreign workers and talents to work here. Yet, her most vulnerable people like those with special needs find it so hard to get a job.
The stark difference could not be that people with special needs in Singapore are less employable than their counterparts elsewhere. The answer is probably in a lack of societal acceptance and support.
I concluded that the best way forward is neither job-hunting nor job-matching, but in creating the right jobs.
But I am just a regular salaried-person who has worked for the same company for 22 years. Creating jobs is not my forte. For many months, I spoke to many people in different trades for ideas and thought hard. In the end, I figured out five principles for job-creation where Cairn is concerned:
– Create a job that plays on his strengths.
– Compensate his limitations with the help of technology and knowledge.
– Level the playing field for him with small capital investment.
– Find something that he can do for others in his neighbourhood.
– Keep making improvements to make the business work
These principles have worked beautifully for my son so far. I will share more about our endeavour in this blog if you are keen to know more.
For now, I am sharing with you these principles in the hope that they will also help others. Help me spread the kindness to those families you care.
William W K Tan
15 March 2020