Interview: Johan Mahmood Merican

What can be done to improve graduate employability and ensure greater specialisation?

JOHAN MAHMOOD MERICAN: TalentCorp focuses on partnerships with employers and universities in three different areas: awareness, exposure and enhancing employability. For awareness, we organise sector-focused career fairs and networking sessions to allow companies to engage with students and address their expectations of employers, especially in the growth sectors listed under the Economic Transformation Programme. For exposure, TalentCorp promotes structured internship experiences for undergraduates by providing employers with tax incentives. Employers must meet requirements that include offering an internship that is at least 10 weeks long, during which it must pay an allowance of at least RM500 ($156) per month and have a specific learning outcome as a result of the internship. In 2013, almost 11,000 undergraduates benefited from better exposure to industry through structured internships provided by leading employers endorsed by TalentCorp.

How would you describe the status of women in the workforce, and where are the most promising areas for potential improvements?

MERICAN: Surprisingly, Malaysia has the lowest female labour participation rate in the region at 52.4%, based on 2013 statistics. However, when compared against the 2012 level of 49.5%, we see an improvement that puts the country on track to achieve the government’s aspiration of a 55% female participation rate by 2015.

While Malaysia has strong female labour participation up to the age of 30, thereafter there is a sharp drop off with women leaving the workforce, principally due to family commitments and lack of work/life balance. Given that two-thirds of the 2013 enrolment into public universities was made up of women, Malaysian employers need to be more progressive in their human capital management to retain this future pipeline of talent. This is the reason why efforts are being made to promote family-friendly policies, provide resources for best practices, and introduce tax incentives for Malaysian employers to initiate flexible work arrangements as a way to retain women in the workforce. This could also help attract women who have been on a career break back into the workplace.

Beyond the overall level of participation in the workforce, there remains room to further improve on the representation of women in leadership positions. Against the government’s policy aspiration for women to hold 30% of decision-making positions, only 8.6% of board directors of listed Malaysian companies were women as of 2013. Recognising the value of diversity, the prime minister announced in April 2014 that, going forward, listed companies will need to disclose their diversity policy on promoting better representation at board and management levels by gender, ethnicity and age.

How can Malaysia improve the manner in which it attracts world-class talent?

MERICAN: Malaysia continues to make strong progress on the ETP, with investment growth translating to professional opportunities. In addition, the Government Transformation Programme addresses liveability factors in order attract and retain world-class talent.

TalentCorp works with top employers to engage with Malaysians abroad and raise awareness of the professional development opportunities at home.

We administer the Returning Expert Programme (REP), which provides incentives for experienced Malaysian professionals to return home, particularly those with skills in short supply. The incentives include a 15% income tax rate for five years. The REP is therefore positioned as a “tipping point” to catalyse the return of Malaysians with required expertise. We also facilitate top expatriate talent in areas with critical skills gaps. We introduced the Residence Pass – Talent programme in 2011, enabling expatriates and their spouses to live and work in Malaysia for 10 years with the ability to move jobs. We will need to continue efforts to ensure companies can retain top global talent.