Malaysia: In training

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Malaysia has launched a major overhaul of its vocational training programmes, aiming to both reform the educational system to ensure graduates are better equipped for employment in the country’s changing economy and to improve the appeal of trades as a profession for young Malaysians.

For some years, Malaysia has lagged behind its neighbours when it comes to producing skilled tradespersons, with its level of enrolment among senior secondary students into vocational and technical streams at 10% compared to Thailand and Indonesia’s 40-60%. Among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the figure is an average of 44%.

According to Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who also serves as Malaysia’s education minister, this situation should change with the launch of a programme in early January that is designed to reshape vocational training by making it more relevant.

The first step of this process involves a pilot scheme being conducted at 15 schools across the country. The project will introduce a new vocational education programme, which will allow secondary school students to enrol in training courses from their first year of high school, rather than later in their education.

The idea behind the scheme is to channel students towards a professional career earlier and extend the period of vocational training to better equip them for the move into college, and eventually, the workforce.

It has been estimated that Malaysia will need at least 3.3m skilled workers over the coming decade to meet the needs of local industry, and Muhyiddin said the deepening of the pool of skilled workers was essential if Malaysia is to keep pace.

“National economic growth requires an increase in the number of graduates in the technical and vocational fields,” he said in early January. “Thus, there is a need to focus on improving the quality of vocational training and technical education to help the country become a high-income nation.”

To achieve this, Muhyiddin said there were five key strategies that would improve Malaysia’s vocational education system. These include the transformation of curriculum, institutions, assessment and organisation, as well as strategic collaboration with industry partners.

According to the deputy human resources minister, Datuk Maznah Mazlan, the government felt compelled to broaden the scale of vocational education after it became apparent that the private sector was not doing enough to improve their skills base.

“The local industry segments do not give adequate support to train their workers and tend to rely more on the government for assistance,” Maznah said in late December. “As a result, the number of highly qualified Malaysian workers is now at 28%, compared to 52% in Singapore and 40% in Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively.”

The government has already begun to engage the private sector more closely to strengthen cooperation and develop workplace training opportunities for students. In early January, the Ministry of Education and oil firm Shell Malaysia inked a memorandum of understanding which foresees the company spending $32,000 annually over a period of five years to provide specialist welding training to students.

One reason for the dearth in vocational and technical stream applicants is the perception that such a path was of a lesser academic standing. In order to overcome this view, the Ministry of Education announced last September that it was aiming to place vocational studies on an equal footing with mainstream education by considering the certificate for students attending the new vocational schools on par with the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, the graduation certificate for fifth-year secondary school students.

“With this transformation, the vocational stream can no longer be regarded as second-class education because students who went through such education would become skilled workers and highly marketable,” said Mohd Puad Zarkashi, the deputy education minister, in mid-September.

Though the reforms may make vocational education more appealing, there may be some teething problems for the new system. A potential obstacle the revamped system may face — at least in the early years of the programme — could be a shortage of qualified trainers. The existing system currently suffers from a lack of skilled personnel needed to teach students, and with the private sector already facing a deficit in tradespersons, it is unlikely the government will be able to entice well-paid professionals away from their careers.

The government will also likely have to provide the resources and equipment to vocational schools if they are to succeed in turning out the technicians of tomorrow. While this will be an expensive process, it is an investment in the future — one that could help Malaysia achieve its goal of attaining developed nation status by 2020.

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