Friday, March 4, 2011

Technical And Vocational Education

I haven’t covered the ETP projects much if at all on this blog, mainly because they’re for the most part private sector investment projects with little individual economic impact however large they might be in aggregate.

But this quote from Datuk Sri Idris Jala at the PwC Global Survey Dialogue yesterday caught my eye (excerpt):

At PwC CEO Dialogue: Idris’s Take on Talent

…According to Idris, the Malaysian employment hierarchy currently suffers from a ‘broken pyramid’ situation, where we have huge numbers of people with graduate and postgraduate qualifications, and not have enough people with technical and vocational skills. Idris suggested the solution of the corporate sector coming in to set up technical colleges since the corporate sector themselves know what is needed. In his words,

“I am sitting here on behalf of the government, putting the challenge back to you CEOs here today, to unleash the talent in your workplace. You must put them in the right places and let them grow.”

I’ve been doing some research on this problem for some time now (work-related), so I’m familiar with the main issues. Essentially, Malaysian companies and our locally based foreign counterparts are finding it increasingly hard to source skilled labour here. Yet, we’re putting out record numbers of graduates – there’s both a skills mismatch, and a knowledge mismatch.

Part of the problem is the “spoon feeding” culture that dominates basic education, to the point where by the time students get into university, they lack the skills for self-directed learning that is required at that level. A second is the largely academic bent of university teaching that doesn’t quite hand off the practical knowledge that students need to actually make them attractive to prospective employers.

A third issue is that while industry-university linkages have proliferated, these haven’t been very effective in affecting changes – a very common complaint I hear from industry leaders.

There’s probably more, but DS Idris Jala is taking the third issue squarely by the horns, even if the criticism isn’t completely fair. There does exist a gap in vocational education in Malaysia.

But some companies do the best they can to bridge that gap – all if not most of the GLCs like Sime Darby, Maybank and Petronas have large training establishments. When I was in banking a decade ago, pinched Maybank line staff commanded a salary premium because they were better trained and more knowledgeable. Petronas also runs its own university, as does Tenaga Nasional and Telekom Malaysia.

But not all Malaysian companies have the resources to run their own technical training departments, much less universities. What’s needed is a publicly run vocational/technical college system to turn out the kind of workforce that Malaysian companies want. If that system can be privately funded, all the better.

But standardised public accreditation is critical for labour mobility, as it provides a low cost signal to employers about a prospective employee’s capability. Employees that run through in-house training programs – no matter their competency – would be higher risk prospects for potential employers.

So while I have some sympathy for Idris Jala’s view – the private sector could do more to help set the direction of education – I don’t think it goes far enough in meeting Malaysia’s current and future human resource needs.

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