Bridging the skills gap for our manufacturing future
By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohd Azree Idris
Malaysia faces a skills gap between advanced technical abilities required for its manufacturing ambitions under the New Industrial Masterplan 2023 and its current workforce’s skills. Historically, Malaysia’s education system did not prioritize developing homegrown talent for complex manufacturing. Undertaking critical reforms to nurture globally competitive technical talent is imperative for Malaysia to realize its vision of joining modern industrialized economies through Industry 4.0. Failing to address the skills gap promptly could cripple its manufacturing goals.
Malaysia’s education system faces challenges in preparing students with advanced technical skills for modern manufacturing. Historical factors include a focus on resource extraction over manufacturing, a societal preference for white-collar degrees, and an underdeveloped technical vocational education system. Limited industry-academia collaboration and theoretical curricula further hindered skill development. The legacy of British colonial education, not prioritizing technical skills, contributes to this shortfall. In contrast, Britain’s education system evolved with industrialization. It emphasized technical education, apprenticeships, and vocational training, aligning with industrial needs. Malaysia’s colonial education system prioritized bureaucracy over technical skills, lacked adaptability, and was centralized, hindering skill development. Weak industry ties and a lack of local models for work experience pathways further impacted Malaysia’s ability to bridge the skills gap.
To address Malaysia’s education challenges and prepare a workforce better suited for the manufacturing sector, a comprehensive set of recommendations can be considered. Firstly, there is a need to enhance Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programs. This can be achieved by expanding TVET offerings to provide more opportunities for practical, skills-based training that aligns with the specific needs of key industries. Elevating TVET as a prestigious career path can help attract talent into this field, ensuring a pipeline of skilled individuals ready to contribute to the manufacturing sector. Additionally, promoting apprenticeships and work experience programs at both secondary and tertiary education levels is essential. These initiatives should aim to seamlessly integrate classroom learning with real-world training through strategic partnerships with industry associations, enabling students to gain hands-on experience and relevant skills.
To further enhance Malaysia’s education system and align it with the needs of the manufacturing sector, several key actions are essential. First, universities should revisit their curricula to emphasize practical applications by integrating technical skills development, IT training, problem-based learning, and industry-focused projects. This ensures that graduates are well-prepared for real-world manufacturing roles and bridges the gap between academia and industry. Second, fostering robust collaboration between industry and academia is imperative. Encouraging joint efforts in curriculum development, collaborative research projects, student mentoring, and addressing skills gaps benefits both students and the industry. Third, comprehensive career guidance should be implemented in schools, with a specific focus on promoting opportunities in manufacturing and technical fields from an early age. Fourth, increasing investments and scholarship programs dedicated to nurturing technical skills can incentivize students to pursue these paths, addressing skill shortages in the job market and supporting manufacturing growth. Lastly, learning from successful global models of applied technical education and adapting Malaysia’s training infrastructure to meet industry demands is crucial for maintaining competitiveness in the manufacturing sector and driving economic growth.
Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), the leading electricity utility company in Malaysia contributes to some of the initiatives by collaborating with universities to offer industry-focused internships, mentorship programs, and sponsored projects, bolstering practical learning and narrowing academia-industry gaps. Establishing its own training institute allows TNB to tailor curricula to power industry needs, introducing specialized lines for power engineering and enhancing curriculum development. TNB actively promotes technical career opportunities in the electricity and energy sector through school outreach programs, providing early exposure. Specialized scholarships and sponsorship of power engineering students nurture talent in key technical skill areas. The company also sends employees for training attachments abroad, adopting global best practices in power engineering training. However, addressing the nation’s skills gap in various strategic manufacturing requires coordinated efforts involving government, industry bodies, academia, and major corporations to create a diverse and skilled talent pool aligned with Malaysia’s ambitious economic goals.
Malaysia’s journey toward developing technical proficiency in its workforce is a long-term endeavor, but it is essential for positioning the nation for higher value-added manufacturing endeavors. Equipping Malaysia with a future-ready workforce boasting competitive technical skills sets the stage for achieving its aspiration of joining the ranks of modern industrialized economies under the New Industrial Masterplan 2030. Decisive action in the realm of education is the need of the hour.
The author is an Associate Professor at Department of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN), and may be reached at [email protected]