Equipping talents with needed education, skills

Are Malaysian talents sufficiently equipped with the skills to face, navigate and thrive in the new world that is driven by technologies?

Pic by AFP

AS THE frontier technologies start to take over humans’ lives and the process has been fastened by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a need for a balanced approach in trying to ensure that this does not lead to more socio-economic problems like what we have seen in the past technological revolutions.

Human transformation must also take place so that the people would be at the heart of the revolution, not only for the benefit of some or for businesses to make profits — a concept introduced under Malaysia 5.0. To prevent ourselves from being colonised digitally, there is a critical need to focus on the core foundation of the society; and that is the national education system.

Realistically, are Malaysian talents sufficiently equipped with the skills to face, navigate and thrive in the new world that is driven by technologies?

According to the World Bank, the challenges associated with digital adoption are the weaknesses in the key complements like skills, rules and institutions.

When talking about skills, the majority in Malaysia’s labour force is skewed towards the semi-skilled level. Although the share of the skilled labour force has increased, the rise was not too significant. (Refer Chart 1).

Education background could play a part in why our labour force is concentrated in the semi-skilled group relative to the skilled group. The largest share of Malaysia’s labour force accounts for those with secondary education.

Thus, it is reasonable that graduating from this level of education will place them in the non-graduate jobs, which are the semiskilled and low-skilled jobs. (Refer Chart 2)

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that the number of students enrolled in tertiary education is an indicator of the country’s future potential for a skilled workforce.

Data from the World Bank showed that in 2019, the share of students enrolled in tertiary education in Malaysia stood at 43%, which was much lower than the enrolment rates in advanced countries such as South Korea (96%), Singapore (89%), Estonia (70%) and Germany (70%).

Another indicator that can be used to gauge where Malaysia is right now when it comes to education is the Programme for International Student Assessment scores.

Future of Jobs Survey 2020 conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) also showed that the top two perceived hindrances to companies adopting technologies are the skills gap in the local labour market (55.4%) and inability to attract specialised talents (46.7%). This also helps explain the worrying state of underemployment in our country as there is a mismatch between supply and demand in the labour market.

At the same time, we can also observe that the type of jobs created for the graduates are mostly semiskilled and the number of skilled jobs created has been dropping (refer Chart 3), likely due to cost-cutting measures amid the crisis caused by the pandemic.

Recent statistics released by the Employment Insurance System, from Jan 1 to April 9, have shown that the highest number of vacancies in the job market is for the non-graduate jobs, namely the elementary occupations (154,085), and services and sales workers (85,648). Meanwhile, graduate jobs for professionals are at 78,613.

Although the number of vacancies for professionals might look ample, they are not be able to match the rising number of graduates. As a result, plenty of graduates are left with no other choice but to take up semi-skilled/low-skilled jobs to earn a living.

The challenging economic condition also makes it harder for young graduates to seek jobs that match their qualifications as they need to compete with experienced job seekers who have been laid off because of the economic crisis.

Subsequently, these situations will then affect existing and future workforce skills and become more exposed to risks of displacement given the rise of frontier technologies.

According to the WEF report, technological adoption by companies will transform tasks, jobs and skills by 2025. Skills that would be highly in demand by the employers are critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, self-management skills such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility, and technology use and development.

This tells us that the jobseekers or certain groups of workers who do not possess these specific skills will likely be at a disadvantage.

So, these statistics should be the pushing factors to ensure that Malaysian talents are fully prepared to face and adapt to this transformation, and not excluded from any benefit. That is why this needs to start from the right education which reflects the ground reality beginning from a very young age.

In the framework of Malaysia 5.0 coined by the CEO of an independent think tank EMIR Research Sdn Bhd and the chairman of Malaysia Digital Economy Corp Datuk Dr Rais Hussin Mohamed

Ariff, one of the objectives is to integrate IR4.0 elements into the education syllabus as early as primary school up to university and it should be extended to beyond what we have now, which is the users of technologies. We need to produce creators of technologies too.

Besides that, we should not forget the importance of humanities in producing talents who are justly balanced and flexible in terms of knowledge to thrive in the new era, not only the experts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Thus, a curriculum comprising STEM and non-STEM should be made compulsory for students at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. This way, future talents won’t find it too hard to cope with the rapid change in industry demand that requires specific skill sets, like what has happened since the pandemic struck.

Transformation and reformation of the national education system would undeniably take a long time to bear fruit, but if this is taken seriously with urgency, many socio-economic issues that we see now can be mitigated.

  • Sofea Azahar is a research analyst at EMIR Research, a think tank that focuses on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.