AT 25, Shanmuganathan was a self-confessed drifter. With just his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia qualifications, he was unable to secure a permanent job and kept moving from one odd job to another. His last odd job was tending a food stall at a weekly pasar malam. However now, a year on, he is a changed man, one with a steady job as an automotive technician with Proton Edar.
The transformation was largely due to Shanmuganathan’s enrolment in Giatmara’s vocational training programme. He was among the first batch of 142 Indian youths allowed into the programme previously reserved for bumiputras only.
“This programme is really wonderful. Before I enrolled, I had no skills at all. Now, I have a skill for life and a full-time job with Proton Edar which Giatmara helped me to secure. I encourage all youths who either dropped out of school or do not qualify for further education to apply for the Giatmara courses,” he said.
Shanmuganathan had pursued a programme in automotive technology.
Another trainee, Vishnukrish Kumarravellu, was just as enthusiastic as Shanmuganathan about the programme. The 22-year-old enrolled in a tool and die programme at the Giatmara centre in Sungai Siput, Perak.
“The Giatmara course is really good as it is very hands-on. I took a basic machinist course in Penang a few years ago and worked as a technician for two years after that before enrolling in Giatmara. Though I am still attending the course, I feel I am learning so much more in this programme,” said Vishnu.
The Giatmara programmes were introduced in 1986, under the Fifth Malaysian Plan, by the then Entrepreneur Development Ministry (now known as Entrepreneurial and Cooperative Development Ministry). The first training centre was set up in Jitra, Kedah. Since then, another 167 centres have sprung up throughout the country.
Giatmara centres are Mara vocational centres that offer certificate-level training programmes in close to 30 areas, ranging from automotive technology to hair dressing and tooling. There are, at present, a total of 168 Giatmara centres throughout the country.
Since November last year, the programme, initially set up for bumiputra students, has been extended to under-privileged Indian youths, starting with an allocation of 650 places for these people.
“This may or may not be a permanent opening, depending on the response,” says Dr Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, chief executive of Giatmara.
The first batch of 81 Indian youths to have completed the course received their certificates from MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu at a “graduation ceremony” at the Community Development Department (Kemas) hall in Sungai Siput, Perak, on July 3.
In his speech, Samy Vellu congratulated the trainees for their tenacity in completing the training programme and urged them to work hard in their careers.
“This is a historic moment as these 81 students are the first group of non-Bumiputra students to have been admitted into the Giatmara programme. This opportunity shows the government’s commitment to provide opportunities for all youths, regardless of race.
“I would like to congratulate the 81 trainees as well as the 61 others who are still undergoing training, for their commitment and determination to succeed. I am certain the training received will elevate their social and economic situation as close to 90% of them come from poor and low income families,” he said.
Of the 142 Indian youths in the programme, 88% are from low-income families. Only 33.3% completed primary or lower secondary school while the rest studied till Form Four or Five. About 76.3% come from squatter areas or low-cost residential areas. 95.1% are between the ages of 16 and 24. The most popular course was automotive technology.
Executive director of Yayasan Strategik Sosial (YSS), Dr Denison Jayasooria, feels the programme is very good as it gives disadvantaged Indian youths who have been dismissed as “failures” an opportunity to make something of their lives.
“They are equipped with skills which help them to actually get good jobs or start out on their own even. This is very important because these are youths likely to get involved in gangs or participate in petty or even serious crime.
“I hope more Indian youths will take advantage of this opening to get a skills-based training qualification which is recognised by industry,” he said.
Filling a void
The Giatmara programmes were introduced for two reasons – to meet the country’s need for skilled and semi-skilled workers, and to reduce social problems among youths from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds.
“We have seen positive results with most of our students securing gainful employment upon completion of the course,” said Dr Abdul Aziz.
“At the time, the programme was introduced,” he added, “there were not many vocational training institutions around and the few that were operating were very academic and required applicants to have a minimum SPM qualification.
“However, our target group of students were those who dropped out of school early, some before sitting for their SPM, as well as those from low-income families. For these students, a less academic and more practical programme was needed.”
And so, the first Giatmara centre was set up in 1986. To reach youths in remote areas, the early centres were located on the outskirts of towns.
“We started off with a modest budget. To maximise our resources, we utilised old and disused buildings like vacant police stations or schools which we renovated or refurbished.
“In fact, our students played an active part in the restoration work. For instance, students in the building technology and construction courses helped out. We made it a point to let them train on the actual projects,” he said.
The duration of the training programmes range from six months to a year, and students receive a monthly allowance of RM100 throughout the period. Accommodation, however, is not provided and so students are encouraged to register at centres closest to their home or a relative’s home.
“So far, every student who has enrolled has completed the programme and graduated. About 86% of the “graduands” are employed and another 4% have opted to further their studies in related areas,” he revealed.
To date, 20 years after its inception, more than 130,000 students have gone through the Giatmara training programmes. Response is overwhelming. Each year, about 16,000 applications vie for the 9, 000 to 10,000 places available. There are two intakes into the programmes a year but each centre has the capacity to accept only about 60 students per intake.
“The programmes are very popular. As the response is so good, we conduct interviews to ascertain the most suitable students for the programme,” says Dr Abdul Aziz.
Unlike other education institutions, academic excellence is not a criterion for entry into the Giatmara programmes. One guideline for acceptance is age. Applicants must be over 15 years of age. There is no maximum age limit although those over 40 will not be eligible for the monthly allowance of RM100.
“To qualify for the programme, candidates must be able to read and write, be healthy and physically fit and most importantly, they must be interested in the field.
“Apart from filling in the application forms, candidates are also required to come for an interview so that we can choose the most deserving and suitable candidates,” he said.
Flexible and comprehensive
At the moment, Giatmara offers programmes in about 30 fields including domestic electrical wiring, home electrical appliances repair, construction (woodwork, tiling, brick laying), industrial maintenance, carpentry and dressmaking.
“However, we are flexible and offer courses based on demand and need. For instance, in an area where the emphasis is on manufacturing, related courses will be offered,” said Dr Abdul Aziz.
Giatmara is also planning to expand its “mobile training unit” to train adults, particularly women, to give them skills which they can use to generate income for themselves.
“In some remote areas in Sarawak, we have started offering tailoring lessons and such to assist the locals to make some money,” he explained.
To encourage students to be enterprising, students who show potential are retained and groomed to set up their own businesses.
“To get them started, we loan them some equipment and continue to advise them. So far, more than 1,500 businesses have been set up by Giatmara graduates,” said Dr Abdul Aziz.
News of Giatmara’s success has travelled far and wide, and this has resulted in international programmes set up in Cambodia (funded by the United Nations Development Programme) and pretty soon, in Sudan (funded by Petronas) and Southern Thailand as well.
“We have also had students coming to us from Thailand, Namibia, Somalia and Sudan under government-to-government training schemes,” he said.