Malaysia: Broadening the skills base

The government has vowed to expand the Malaysian vocational education system to help bridge the widening gap between the demand for skilled labour and the available pool of trained workers.

According to the Educational Blueprint 2013-25, approved by the cabinet earlier this year, Malaysia has a skilled labour shortage of more than 700,000 workers, a figure set to be pushed far higher in coming years. Up to 3.3m new positions are expected to be added to the workforce by 2020, with at least 46% of them requiring jobholders to be trained to vocational diploma or certificate standard. By contrast, the education roadmap estimates that just 22% of new jobs created up until 2020 will require university degrees.

To close the supply-demand gap, the government has set out to create at least 50,000 additional places in the vocational education system each year, and to provide the infrastructure, materials and technical support to maintain the expanded network of schools and colleges called for by the blueprint.

Enrolment at vocational facilities accounts for just 10% of upper secondary students, a figure the government has said it wants to double, as it is well below the 44% average in OECD countries. Malaysia also falls short of some of its neighbours, with between 40% and 60% of secondary school students in Thailand and Indonesia pursuing vocational education, according to the Malaysian government.

Last year, while the blueprint was being drafted, the deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also the minister of education, warned that if Malaysia did not radically improve its vocational system to ensure it met the demands of a changing economy, the country risked falling behind regional rivals.

It was a theme that he took up again in the lead-up to the May 5 general election, which saw the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak returned to power, although with a reduced majority. “The core strengths of the education system in all developed nations are technical and vocational education,” he said while attending a vocational education fair in late April.

Even before the new educational blueprint was rolled out, the government had been moving to strengthen the system’s vocational offerings. Last year, 15 secondary schools were upgraded to the status of vocational colleges, providing places for more than 3100 students. This trial programme has been extended in 2013, with a further 72 vocational colleges opening their doors to 21,250 students. The number of secondary schools providing technical education has also been increased this year from 15 to 65.

According to Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chairperson of the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, the push to boost vocational education is a positive but it needs to be backed with the necessary resources and support to ensure students have a place to move into in the workforce on graduation.

“The doubling of vocational college enrolment to 20% is timely and jobs must be created to absorb the supply,” she wrote in an editorial piece carried by the Malaysian Star on April 28. “While the Europeans have up to 80% of their graduates qualify in vocational training, quality is kept extremely high to support the reputable state-of-the-art automotive industry the likes of BMW, Mercedes, etc.”

One of the greatest challenges Malaysia faces in expanding its vocational education system is finding quality teachers. According to the Educational Blueprint, a shortage of qualified instructors and the lack of an industry-recognised curriculum have resulted in graduates who are not equipped to meet industry needs.

The private sector might offer some relief in terms of boosting the supply of teachers. Skilled personnel working in the private sector could be encouraged to transition to positions at vocational education facilities, for example. Alternatively, businesses could provide workplace experience programmes. To promote the latter, the government will be offering incentives such as tax breaks.

While this may encourage firms to provide on-the-job training, it could still be difficult to meet the demand for teachers in the classroom or workshop. Skilled professionals are in high demand in Malaysia, and the government will likely find it hard to attract those with training and experience to move into public sector teaching positions. Without a broadening of the skills base at the core of the expanded vocational education system, the programme may find difficulty meeting its targets.

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