Sri Lankan Chaminda Senarath Wijerathna has wanted to be a construction worker since he was a boy.

He grew up helping his construction worker father and uncles lay bricks and mix cement. By the time he was 15, he was able to tile his parents' bedroom by himself.

Now 33 and with more than 16 years under his belt as a tiler, he will be arriving in Singapore next Friday with 19 other compatriots to continue his career.

Last month, these 20 men, out of a group of 34, passed a skills test which is a requirement for all new construction workers coming to Singapore.

To prepare, they went through a 1 1/2 month course at a Colombo training centre run by Singapore construction company Fonda Global Engineering.

There are another 100 workers being trained at the centre currently. They pay about $2,600 for the course and test - getting two chances to pass. Workers will also have to spend around $1,400 on recruitment agents to find a job in Singapore.

Mr Melvin Ong, who runs the training centre, says Mr Wijerathna stood out from his peers for his confidence and quick learning. "I think he has the potential to be a site supervisor."

Mr Wijerathna finished the practical section of the test, in which he had to tile a 6 sq m wall, in three hours, one less than the four given.

He was assessed on criteria such as whether the tiling met specifications, and how precisely tiles were aligned. Workers also took a one-hour theory test on topics such as work safety.

Mr Wijerathna believes he can work fast as construction is second nature to him. Still, he admits that he will need some time to get used to Singapore standards.

For instance, workers bound for Singapore are taught to apply enough mortar smoothly before laying tiles. This helps the tiles to be placed flat and aligned well, something expected by Singapore home owners.

Mr Wijerathna says people in Sri Lanka and Seychelles, where he worked for two years, were less particular about the finish of their walls.

"I practised to make sure everything is smooth. In a week, I managed to do it," he says in English.

Like him, many Sri Lankans have construction experience either at home or overseas. Most of the 20 coming here have at least four years of experience.

Yang Seng Engineering senior manager Richmon Ng, whose firm is hiring all the 20 arriving next week, says being experienced means needing less supervision.

That is why Sri Lankans can command a wage of about $800 a month, higher than the $600 for Indian and Bangladeshi workers, who typically come to Singapore without any experience.

Another plus, say construction firms, is the workers' relatively good command of English, which they learn in school, then hone while working overseas in places such as Oman and Dubai.

Mr Mangala Weerawanni, who is hoping to join the 20 workers in going to Singapore if he passes the test, says his English improved by leaps and bounds when he worked in Oman for eight years.

The 35-year-old had to speak the language to the many Indian and Filipino workers there.

When asked why they wanted work in Singapore, the Sri Lankans point to the good pay and safe environment.

Among the 20 is Mr Pushpa Niroshana Fernando, 28, who is an A-level holder. He says: "I can get an office job in Colombo, but I will earn only about US$400 (S$508) a month."

Mr Wijerathna, who has three daughters, the youngest of whom is eight months and the oldest 10 years old, believes the money will give his family a better life.

"They will miss me. But my family knows I am doing this for them."