Serious mismatch in ICT grads and industry requirement
ICT no longer perceived as an attractive career
THE information communications technology (ICT) sector in Malaysia faces several challenges that will likely impair its ability to compete effectively in an increasingly globalized world and perhaps even threaten the nation’s economic transformation.
These challenges include the lack of a resource pool due to a shrinking enrolment in ICT courses, the general declining technical quality of such graduates, the lack of communication and critical thinking skills amongst these students, and the irrelevance of some courses being taught at local universities, say industry pundits.
Harres Tan, chairman and group managing director of the HT Group, said that students have been shying away from taking ICT courses in the past five to eight years, possibly because of the aftermath of the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s which saw many promising companies go bust as they were not sustainable to begin with.
“We are beginning to see a shortfall of people enrolling in ICT courses as there are fewer students who are graduating from our universities," said Tan, who runs his own ICT consultancy and software house with offices in Kuala Lumpur, New York and London.
The industry veteran and former chairman of Pikom (the Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry of Malaysia) told Digital News Asia in an interview that this decline started about eight years ago, when local enrolment in ICT courses dropped.
This was somewhat compensated by foreigners enrolling in such courses at private colleges but even this has dwindled in the last two years.
Bobby Varanasi, CEO of Matryzel Consulting, concurred, adding that annual enrolment in tech-related, including IT, courses in Malaysian universities has declined from the 9% of the total student base five years ago to 1% in 2011. Matryzel Consulting is a strategy consulting, sourcing advisory and management firm.
“On the one hand, students are not seeing the value of pursuing ICT courses," said Varanasi, who is also an Outsourcing Malaysia committee member. "On the other, parents are discouraging kids from pursuing 'career-less' sectors (such as ICT) in favor of traditional disciplines such as banking, retail, real-estate and accounting."
HT Group’s Tan (pic) said this situation is tied to the fact that many ICT students aren't able to get jobs, let alone good ones, which in turn creates the perception that ICT graduates are not marketable.
Such a scenario further breeds doubts in parents' and potential students' minds, which results in lower enrolment in such courses, he added.
Tan pointed out that several job market outlook surveys conducted by Pikom, Jobstreet and KPMG in 2010 noted that the high demand for ICT professionals in Malaysia is evidenced by the average salary growth rate at executive levels that always exceeds the inflation.
He added that even a salary survey by the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) reveals that there is no indication of a salary decline in the ICT industry. MDeC is the Malaysian government's ICT custodian.
The percentage of entrants, enrolment and graduates in ICT degrees in relation to the total number across all fields of study for 2010 and 2009 is declining despite an increase in absolute numbers, according to data from the Ministry of Higher Education.
Tan also said many software companies are unable to fill IT positions despite their willingness to pay up to as much as RM4,000 a month for topnotch ICT graduates, thereby forcing some companies to employ Indonesian and Indian graduates.
While enrolment or the lack thereof is a serious problem, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
According to Woon Tai Hai, the current chairman of Pikom, a major deficiency of fresh graduates today is they do not necessarily have so-called "soft skills," which include writing, speaking and communication skills.
They also lack the confidence and independence needed when assimilating into the workforce, he added.
Woon (pic) said along with these challenges are the students' inability to be analytical and creative, traits that often set exceptional candidates apart from the mediocre ones.
"Some graduates also lack the appreciation of working in a real-life environment and their expectations are mismatched," Woon explained. "These may experience cultural shock when they commence work, especially on day one."
Tan also believes that the current curriculum in a lot of the universities lacks relevance and does not prepare students adequately enough to face real-life working environments.
"Universities need to work more closely with the industry, ensuring that they teach courses which equip our graduates with the right skills to face the working world."
Matryzel's Varanasi said a lot of these problems stem from the fact that many of our graduates are unable to get things done and can't deliver client value with the knowledge they have.
"Now this could stem from a lack of curiosity, lack of passion and/or ambition, lack of domain knowledge and risk-taking behavior, and most critical, the lack of respect or acknowledgment of the globalised competitive aspects of the IT and IT services sector,” he said.
Varanasi (pic) said in this context, foreign graduates bring to the table the first four components distinctively, therefore satisfying the principal goals of employers in running a competitive organization.
"I don’t think foreign graduates are dominating the situation as yet," he noted. "However their significant presence in key roles/jobs that could as easily be undertaken by locals is worth understanding."
Varanasi also asked why some companies were willing to pay top dollar for foreign graduates when each one is perhaps – monetarily worth – at least 2.5 to 3 times what local graduates can fetch.
"This is because money chases value, not the other way around," he said, adding that companies are willing to pay top dollar for highly capable individuals regardless where they come from.
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