The Alternative Route


When you think about your education and career or that of your children what comes to mind? Probably something along the lines of first school, then university and finally a stable well paying job. Right?

What if we changed this up a bit, after school instead of university its now vocationalschool and apprenticeships, and then a well paying job? How do you feel about that?

On this week’s episode Azyml Yunor and Nova Nelson explore the world of vocational training and jobs, the attitude society has towards it, and the role it could play in developing local talent.

Produced by Handy Jobs (Hear & Now in Malaysia) in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM.

*Tune in to BFM 89.9 every Wednesday at 7:30pm for the latest Hear & Now episodes! (Repeats on Sundays at 6pm)



Azmyl Yunor: BFM 89.9. You’re listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia. I am Azmyl Yunor and on this week’s episode Nova Nelson and I ask the question why does Malaysia need to raise its game in vocational education and training?

As a country do you think we appreciate our technicians, plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, factory operators and chefs in equal measures to our engineers, lawyers, doctors and accountants?

If a brick layer, electrician or plumber can earn as much as an engineer per hour in countries like Australia, England and Germany, it says a lot about how they appreciate technical and vocational skills.

We’ve each experienced or at the very least heard of horror tales about shoddy workmanship on houses or mechanics that do not get it right the first time. That is when we start asking ourselves where do our technical skills talent get trained? Do they get enough on the job training and are they capable of providing quality craftsmanship?

Nova Nelson : So there is a day to day interaction we have with skilled workers. But to what extent does an economy like ours depend on technically trained talent? It has been reported that Malaysia needs more than 1.5million skilled workers in 2020.

But if we need that many skilled workers why is it there is this perception that vocational education is only for those who do not do well academically? For instance if I scored 10As and I want to be a carpenter where do I sign up? Will there be a future for me and will I get the support I need to achieve high standards of craftsmanship.

Today Azmyl and I will speak to 5 individuals as we try and deconstruct the future of vocational and technical skills training in Malaysia

Azmyl Yunor: So If you’ve been dreaming of being a carpenter stay tune…

Datuk Muhammad Feisal: I’ve visited Germany quite often to see the customers who are in the kampung in Germany, rural areas. You may say they are in a kampung, but they are all skilled. They all passed through an apprenticeship training through out the whole of Germany.

Nova Nelson: When we looked up the topic of vocational skills, the German Model came up prominently. In fact it also came up in most of our interviews.

Azmyl Yunor: So, Nova you met someone who replicated the German model of technical training here.

Nova Nelson: Yes, I spoke to the founder of the German Malaysian Institute

Datuk Muhammad Feisal: This was a letter, 24th November 1989, pihak saya pada dasaranya bersetuju dengan rancangan mendirikan suatu indusrial training center anjuran bersama kerajaan Malaysia dan kerajaan German barat. Sign, Mahathir Mohammad. He asked me, two things. One, macam mana nak buat? I told him, the Germans provided equipments, lecturers and all the training. We provide only place, and local staffs. I want the Germans to be here for five years. He said, Malaysia tak boleh take over? I said, boleh, boleh sangat sangat, but if they take over tomorrow, day after, they’ll change the system. So if we have the Germans for the next five years, by the time they want to change the system it will be very difficult, because the system is set. So, that is how we started. Di mana? There is actually a factory, a little building. But I said, what we need is training of skills, we do not need a beautiful building. So it was stuck in that building for 18 years, but they produced fantastic people.

Nova Nelson : In Germany vocationaltraining is prevalent in the German educational system.  Approximately 51% of young people under the age of 22 have completed an apprenticeship. They practice a Dual Training System which incorporates on the job training and vocational school.

Datuk Muhammad Feisal: In Germany, its 3 years for them, even to be a farmer, they are trained. I asked, how do you train to be farmers? Because in that type of training, Dual training means you work 3 days in the work place, 2 days in the classroom. I said, to be a farmer, what do you do in the classroom? To me, here, to be a farmer, you give him a cangkul and off he goes. He said, plenty! We learn about soil structure, we learn about fertilizer, we learn germination of seeds, we learn the repairing of various equipments. So when we give them a total package, they take a total of 3 years to go through apprenticeship and become a real farmer.

Azmyl Yunor: What kind of industries are we focusing on? And is there money to be made?

Nova Nelson: Your institute, what sectors were you aiming for? And were you matching it to the progress the economy was going through?

Datuk Muhammad Feisal:  So, all the needs of the manufacturing industries etc, all areas, so we aim for the needs of Malaysia, because we are leading the world on electronic chips. By the way, we are also the hulk for oil and gas. And now, we are going into solar energy. We are in fact, after China, after Germany, its Malaysia.

Nova Nelson : And if there is Cheap Labour readily available here how really can we ensure this vocational skill sectors become attractive to Malaysians?

Datuk Muhammad Feisal:  About 20 years ago, Singapore export their cheap labor  factories to Johor, now I think we should export, if we export these factories then we go for a higher skill in solar energy, in oil and gas, and various things that need skills.

Nova Nelson: And what about the general perception and attitudes we have towards skilled labour?

Datuk Muhammad Feisal:  I want to reach the day that these certificates must be displayed, whether its in a barber shop, whether its in a mechanic shop, all the places you can think of. If we have certificates everywhere and all our people are trained, all the people will want training because without training they wont get a certificate, and without a certificate, they wont be able to open a shop. This is whats happening in Germany. You must have a certificate to say that you are qualified in that area before you’re allowed a license to open a business because you know your job.

Azmyl Yunor: What will make us appreciate these technical talents more? And pay based on whether or not we think we are getting quality.

Datuk Muhammad Feisal: I had emphasized to EPU and many people that the Dual system that is practiced in the country must be run by the private sector. Chambers of Commerce and various associations, mechanic association, coffeeshop association, they are more important than the government servants. Because to the coffee shop owners, they will ask, what does the government know? Eg, my mechanic, Tan, he said “If I give this to the government, what do they know? I’ve been in this business for the last 50 years” So, I put a paper where the ministers are under the deputy prime minister. The cabinet accepted it and we now have a committee under the deputy prime minister which cover all sort of education including vocational education, that’s why he could launch the vocational training. But, we need the implementation committee which must be chaired by the chambers and have the members of the various associations. The fast moving, improving technological improvements, only the private sectors know. So, they say we don’t have enough trainers sometimes, and I say, we have, and he said, what do you mean? And I said, I can grab that Tan who has been 50 years in that business and 1000 other Tans whom we give them special courses and what the students are supposed to learn, but we have to change our thinking. We have to think that the private sector is moving very fast forward. The government and the private sector must work together.

Nova Nelson: Azmyl, have you ever done an apprenticeship before? Or do you know anyone who has?

Azmyl Yunor:  I have not but I met Muhd Faiz, he is young, just completed his Bachelor in Automotive Engineering specialising in robotics and before that pursued a diploma in automotive technology.

Muhd Faiz: College has been providing through, its more like international standards. So you are doing more hands on training like how you see it in the United States, Germany, so there is more hands on training compared to theory. The concept of TOC is good. Diploma, you do more hands on training but degree, you’re more into theory. So, its really good.

Azmyl Yunor : So you did both yea? You did your diploma here and your degree in New Zealand?

Muhd Faiz: Yeap, that’s right.

Azmyl Yunor : So did you do your apprenticeship in Malaysia?

Muhd Faiz: Every semester when I was in TOC, every semester I have this thing called On Job Training. I’ve been through 4 or 5 On Job Training and one internship. I’ve been working in BmW, Honda, Mercedes, one of the workshop in Sunway, and Toyota.

Azmyl Yunor : When you are doing your apprenticeship, were you attached to one guy who showed you the ropes?

Muhd Faiz: Most of the workshops do, but when I was working in Bmw, they allowed me to be in various fields, like service advisor, parts, technicians, so it is actually quite interesting to be in each and every field, to know how a company runs,

Azmyl Yunor: He’s been looking for a job in the automotive industry. But he has found that his expertise can be applied to other industries.

Muhd Faiz: I see there is a lot of opportunity in working offshore, that’s why I started doing robotics. Its called the ROV, the remotely operated underwater vehicle where you actually end robots underwater and do stuffs which divers cannot do. Lets say, divers can only travel 50m, but robots can do way deeper than that. Being specialized in oil and gas give me opportunity like research etc. There are some people who are doing it for recreational. Some people use ROV to see corals, which is quite an interesting thing. The only problem is that it can be very expensive.

Azmyl Yunor : I think what Faiz gained most from his apprenticeship and technical skills training was the crucial need for keeping to high international standards.

Muhd Faiz : I know a few friends, he has some cases that where people just fix cars, where people just cincai buat kerja and just go. The next thing you know, a few days later the car breaks down and they come back to the workshop again and that’s where they started making profit. This was the wrong concept. I appreciate the service centres in Malaysia. They don’t just fix cars, they troubleshoot the problems of it, every single part, they use diagnose machine to diagnose every single thing and they do inspection during your service which is really good. But normal workshops, I don’t trust them at the moment, not compared to the workshops in New Zealand. In New Zealand, they actually pay you hourly, so they really take their role seriously.

Azmyl Yunor: You’ve been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia.  After the break we will speak to a company on a constant look out for good carpenters in Malaysia and an NGO that is introducing students to an alternative to university.


Azmyl: Welcome back to Hear and Now in Malaysia we’ve been talking about why we need to raise the bar and change our perception towards vocational training.

You spoke to K Nagarajah, General Secretary from the Education Welfare and Research Foundation, what does EWRF do and how are they playing a role in vocational skills training?

Nova nelson: EWRF has been around for 33 years. It started as an organisation that was trying to increase enrolment of Indian students into University. They then evolved into an organisation looking to improve results of Indian students in the classroom Today they are trying hard to create awareness on the options and opportunities students have in skills training, especially for those who are skill smart

K Nagarajah: But the actual time where we really emphasize on skills training is when they are form 4 and form 5. In form 4 and form 5, we already know that for sure academically, they are not well to perform, then we have another program called the CTG program. The career and counseling, guidance program. We let them go through a program called the John Hollands program, from there we know the kind of personality he has, the kind of career suitable for him, Then, we emphasized. We tell him, alright these are the colleges you can go to, these are the career paths that you have, and after the SPM results, we try to bring back these children and help them apply and place them in vocational schools and colleges and we don’t leave them there.

Azmyl Yunor : But it seems to me that those are last resort options. It seems to me that those entering into vocational studies are those not academically inclined. But what about students who do really well in the classroom and want to pursue vocational courses.

Nova Nelson: I asked that same question, I mean surely top scorers should not be stopped from pursuing a passion in technical fields.

K Nagarajah : There was a student who had 10As in SPM, and she wanted to be a chef. And she comes from a string of doctors, her family is all doctors, so the father cannot convince her to be a doctor so he sent her for counseling. And, you see, I don’t know the background and I handled that particular case, and we found that after doing all the personality tests and all, that the choice that she chose was really apt for her. So I said, very good choice, go ahead with it. We don’t stop them, we shouldn’t, if that is what they want, we should encourage it. So, the father became very disappointed. He said, “Look, I sent her here for you to brain wash her.” I think parents are the main cause. We know, as a matter of fact that there is a bright future so we had to call in the father for counseling and I said, “Look, if you look at channel 703 at Astro, you will see that all of them are celebrity chefs and your daughter is a very smart girl. Obviously, if your daughter is going to take up this course and be a chef, she is not going to make roti canai by the road side.”
Nova Nelson: But I think there is a huge societal pressure to follow the academic route.

K Nagarajah : I tell them about other countries, for example like Germany. In Germany, at a very young age, they already know the child. The child has a choice, whether he wants to take the academic path or the vocational path. So, no body looks down. Nobody say that the guy who took the academic path is better than the guy who took the vocational path. Both of them are given equal standing.

Nova Nelson: There is a stigma asscoiated with vocational skills training. But where is that stigma coming from.

K Nagarajah : Right here, you see that all these semi-skilled jobs and vocational skills jobs are taken over by foreigners. So, they feel that if foreigners then they are not earning much, they don’t know exactly how much are foreigners actually earning, they are not aware of it. So, we have to bring in the locals who are doing these kind of jobs and explain how much they are earning, what kind of life they have. And probably, that would convince them. But we are unable to touch many students, we are looking for ways we can reach out to them. Awareness is not just limited to students, but must be within the community as a whole, to the parents, to the teachers, to the counselors, as a whole. The whole community should understand that there is a bright future in semi skilled jobs. So, if the community is aware then maybe the parents will convince the children that, look, you too can have a bright future. So, that is not there.

Nova Nelson : So if I am running a business, say a capentry outfit. How do I ensure I have people with the right skills and craftsmanship. We found one such company making customised handmade furniture in Selayang called Fiske and spoke to the General Manager, Kenny Eu about how they ensure supply of skilled carpenters.

Can you tell us a little as to who your carpenters are, where do you find them and how do you ensure the quality and craftsmanship of there work?

Kenny Eu: We have been in business for over 20 years. We started with rescuing works, bring in old pieces of furnitures, taking them apart and making sure their joints are tight, and restoring those pieces. So, these carpenters that we have are from that period of restoration. We have also been looking for carpenters over the years, and we have a core of carpenters who are in their late 40s and 50s, our oldest carpenter is slightly over 70, and who still doesn’t want to retire. Those carpenters that we get years ago went to old school carpentry schools and had masters who taught them carpentry and had underwent some sort of apprenticeship and they brought those skills with them.

Nova Nelson: It was interesting the carpenters are not coming out institutions of schools. He has found them mostly via word of mouth.

Kenny Eu: A lot of people here come from related families or are somehow related to each other. Or, they are from some town where they know each other so to get our carpenters, we actually have to use word of mouth.

Nova Nelson: So, where are most of your carpenters coming from?

Kenny Eu: They are mostly from up north, Penang and Kedah.

Nova Nelson: Small companies like these offer employment and apprenticeship opportunities.

Kenny Eu: I think it is a more of a guild than a school. You go into a guild where there is not just technique teaching but also experience transfer. And that environment is very important to nurture good carpenters. The problem with Malaysia is that we don’t have that craft as a very strong industry historically. There are a lot of carpenters in Indonesia where the craft is a lot more related to their culture and to their country. We have that absence here, it is hard to find carpenters here because there are little villages which are only made for making chairs or tables in Malaysia.

Nova Nelson: Do you worry for your company for future demand of skills.

Kenny Eu: We are always worried about skills, and we are always worried about future carpenters. Most of the carpenters that come here cannot do the sort of work that we do because a lot of carpenters in Malaysia are cabinet makers. They put boxes together and that’s it. But, what we are doing is..We are very lucky because we have a few carpenters here who are really skilled. You can take a picture of a chair, and they will look at the picture of the chair and they can figure out how to make it based on the photo. And, that is a skill set that is hard to find because you  never know you can do that until you try. And a lot of carpenters have never been given the opportunity to be able to do something like that before.

Azmyl Yunor: As a business man the reality is he needs this skilled talent and there is a worry about how he will ensure a constant supply of quality carpenters

Tan Mei Ling : After working with multiple partners, they are still thinking..

Nova Nelson: That was Tan Mei Ling, from PEMANDU, working on faciliating reforms in Human Capital Development.

Tan Mei Ling : One is we need to increase the quality of the vocational workers in the public institute and the private institute. We need to raise the bar and that means the curriculum, the trainers and the facilities. We need to provide the correct tax break, and incentives for the public sector and the private sectors. Second, is to increase awareness among parents to let them know what vocational training can do for their kids.

Nova Nelson: So they are close to 1000 skills training providers inclusive of public and private providers so are we ready for these kind of revamps, do we have enough of these qualified trainers?

Tan Mei Ling :
Getting industry involvement is very important as part of the transformation process, this is what both the ministry or resources and and education are doing, where they’re checking out industry councils, where there is an exchange as to what is relevant to the industry, what kind of trainers do we need, can we have an exchange of trainers, for experience people who comes in to help out the faculty.

Azmyl Yunor: Are we doing more than just emulating technical skill models from overseas?

Tan Mei Ling : The national talent enhancement program is focusing on engineering and technical skills. People who have engineering or technical skills background is brought into the workshop. Where the government is concerned is to incentivize the company to take on the engineer where the government pays half. It’s a 50/50 scheme for one year. They will go through industrial attachment when they take on the job, if performance is up to par, the industry is obligated to employ so its all based on merit and performance. So, the main thing in the end is still employability.

Azmyl Yunor : For years we’ve been sold the notion that to be successful you had to follow the academic route. And technical work was for those of us who were not “book smart” enough  to make it to university. But times, they are a changing.

Is it time for us to upgrade our views on plumbers, carpenters, electricians, technicians and even chefs – you know, the kind of jobs that require us to create and fix things with our own hands.

It is evident that there is currently an imbalance. And the only way to tip the scale is to maximise local talent and raise the bar in vocational training. Most importantly we need to start regarding the vocational route as equal to an academic one.

I am Azmyl Yunor and I’m Nova Nelson for Hear and Now in Malaysia made in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Program. If you have any comments or feedback please get in touch with us via our twitter feed at BFM radio. BFM 89.9. The business station. You’ve been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia.

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