ICT grads: Plugging the gap

 

  • No jobs, not enough skilled workers still an issue
  • Industry and academia work together to plug the gap

IN our earlier reports this week, Digital News Asia has noted that there is a strange dichotomy in the technology ecosystem in Malaysia: Companies are complaining that they can’t hire enough people, while IT professionals can't find jobs.

This is not a sudden phenomenon, but one that has been building up for more than a decade. There are many compelling theories: With the launch of the Multimedia Super Corridor project (now known as MSC Malaysia) in 1996, the need for a critical mass of so-called knowledge workers (k-workers) to achieve its aspirations was acknowledged early in the game.

New universities and “university-colleges” were established, while the old guard expanded their IT programmes or introduced new courses. Students were fired up to pursue a career in ICT, parents gave their blessings, or even pushed them into such courses.

It was a rush to meet a target, but in the pursuit of quantity, Malaysia may have taken its eye off quality. By 2006, the effects were felt after a vernacular newspaper reported what it saw as a glut of IT jobs in the market, and hordes of unemployed graduates.

To this day, Malaysia’s academia and tertiary institutes still point to media reports for discouraging the best students from enrolling in IT courses, making it a second or third choice for second- or third- ranked students.

According to Education Ministry statistics, there were over 119,000 students enrolled in ICT courses in 2002, and 53,000 graduates were produced that same year. By 2007, there were only 80,000 students enrolled in such courses, and a handful of 19,500 graduates.

Because of this shortage of ICT professionals, many vendors have had to scale down business or projects for fear of being unable to meet customer requirements, says Harres Tan, chairman and group managing director of the HT Group.

“Many vendors are also being forced to hire foreign talents because there just aren’t enough Malaysians to do the job,” adds Tan, also the former chairman of Pikom (the Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry of Malaysia).

ICT grads: Plugging the gapIn its 2009 Economic Monitor report on Malaysia (chart), the World Bank noted that “the lack of knowledgeable IT staff and consultants to design IT-based solution systems has discouraged firms from adopting and/or expanding the use of IT, which could greatly enhance productivity.”

By 2010, the problem had become critical enough for the National ICT Human Resource Task Force to draft its ICT Human Capital Development Framework, which argued that unless Malaysia boosted the quality and quantity of its IT workforce, it would not be able to meet the Economic Transformation Program’s aspiration of becoming a high-income economy.

The Framework, put together by representatives from academia, various ministries as well as government and quasi-government agencies, professional bodies and industry associations, came out with a three pronged strategy to address the issue.

The second and third thrusts concerned building research and development as well as innovative capacity; and institutionalizing professional recognition and standards – the latter led to the proposed Computing Professionals Bill 2011, which has gone back to the drawing board.

The first thrust, and some would say the most fundamental one, was to raise workforce competencies by strengthening the ICT curriculum with a “demand-driven” approach; strengthening the ICT foundation in our education system [from primary school onwards]; and finally, expanding enrolment in ICT courses.

 
Demand-driven approach
In typical bureaucrat-speak, “demand-driven approach” means tertiary institutes should produce graduates who can meet market demands – you know, to actually fit the jobs available out there.

ICT grads: Plugging the gap“There is a serious misalignment of what institutes are producing and what the industry needs,” says Tan (pic).

Five years ago, he told Pikom councillors – past and present – that unless something is done, “this industry is doomed.”

Tan, whose business hinges on having good ICT professionals, and his fellows at Pikom decided to do something about it. They began engaging with universities and colleges.

To be fair to these institutes, many had also begun their own initiatives to reach out to the industry. Some have even formed IT advisory boards whose members include accomplished members of the industry, as well as their own faculty staff.

For example, in March, Tan was officially named chairman of the IT Industry Advisory Board at HELP University. His co-chairman is Ganesh Kumar Bangah, group CEO of Friendster and cofounder and president of MOL Access Portal Bhd; and members include Chris Chan, CEO of TMS Bhd; and Steven Soon, head of the Regulatory Department (Strategy and Business Transformation Division) at DiGi Telecommunications.

Their job is to help ensure that the ICT programmes offered at HELP are relevant to the industry and effective for its undergraduates.

The establishment of such a Board would also “facilitate linkages with the industry to provide internships,” says Datuk Dr Paul Chan, Vice-Chancellor and cofounder of HELP University.

Soft skills
Dr Sien Ven Yu, head of the Department of Information Technology at HELP, has even more ambitious plans for the Advisory Board.

“We will be getting our final-year students to work with members of the Board, and are also working to get first-year students such industry exposure as well,” she says. “These are accomplished businessmen, and we believe this would be good in instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in our students as well.”

HELP, which has 200 active students in five IT programs, also wants to get faculty members in tune with the industry, and foresees more collaborative opportunities ahead with the Board members, Dr Sien adds.

Bangah meanwhile believes that the Board can go beyond mere internship. “We are in discussions with the university so that if we ourselves are suffering technical or programming backlogs, we can outsource this work to HELP students on a project basis, and this will be tied to course credits.”

ICT grads: Plugging the gapTan adds that the programs being envisioned by the Advisory Board would include a great emphasis on interpersonal skills. “Leaderships, emotional quotient – these are all important factors in surviving out there, and we want to make sure graduates are not lacking in these areas.”

And despite it being a hot-button issue, English proficiency as well.

Indeed, the World Bank report notes (chart) that there are key concerns in “the area of technical/ professional, communication, IT, leadership and English language proficiency skills.”

“The tech world is global and multinational in nature,” says Dr Chan. “English proficiency is a must, and while universities can do a small part, we need to address this holistically from primary school education.”

“And we need the political will to see this through,” he says, adding that he sits on a number of steering committees looking into the issue, “where my role is to change the paradigm of certain government agencies.”
 
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