ENGINEERS are crucial in helping the country achieve developed nation status.
To ensure that fresh grads stay in the field, and existing talents continue to upgrade themselves, the Electrical & Electronics (E&E) Productivity Nexus (EEPN) has been conducting several upskilling programmes since 2017.
This includes its in-base training for young unemployed graduates, and postgraduate studies, said EEPN chairman Datuk Seri Wong Siew Hai.
Supported by Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF), the six-month in-base technical and soft skills training programme resulted in 121 participants securing a job. Conducted by those in the industry, the programme was drawn up with industry feedback. Companies were asked about their needs and participants were trained accordingly. A tracer study was done after the programme ended to track the participants’ progress.
In its second year, some 400 unemployed engineers applied but training couldn’t be carried out as the HRDF had frozen its funds.
“We don’t guarantee placements but we try to get them interviews. One of our trainees said if it weren’t for the programme, he wouldn’t have gotten a job.”
Wong realised he had to do something when he saw a growing number of young engineers failing to make the cut in the real world.
“I prefer to term them as ‘yet-to-be-employed’ engineers rather than unemployed, because with the right training and guidance, they’re employable.
“The industry needs engineers so we can’t afford to have these youngsters going into insurance, marketing, or becoming a Grab driver, just because they keep stumbling at the interview stage. Imagine four years in university going to waste.”
The Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM) president David Lai Kong Phooi said the engineer to population ratio for developed nations is 1:100. For Malaysia with a population of 32 million, the number of engineers should be 300,000.
Based on the Education Ministry’s statistics from 1997 to 2017, the average number of engineers produced per year by local institutions of higher learning - excluding graduates from foreign universities - is about 16,000. The cumulative total of all engineers produced from 1997 to 2017 is estimated to be about 341,109.
It may appear that the number of engineers produced are sufficient for Malaysia, but there are only 128,000 professional and graduate engineers registered with the Board of Engineers Malaysia (BEM).
This discrepancy could be due to various reasons. Many engineers don’t register with the BEM because their jobs don’t require them to make submissions to the authorities. Some choose to work overseas. Others leave the profession altogether. There’s also the possibility of a mismatch between the expectations of graduates and employers, which could result in unemployment.
While the number of varsity-trained engineers has been very encouraging in terms of meeting the country’s target, we’re still facing a shortage of engineers – perhaps not in terms of actual numbers, but in terms of employability, and retention of talents, within the engineering sector and with Malaysian companies, said Lai.
Based on Talent Corp’s Critical Occupation List, he said the highest demand for engineers are in the civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical disciplines.
Lai said there are many reasons why engineers turn to other jobs. For some, it could be a lack of interest in the field or for career advancement.
“The entry level remuneration of engineers is among the highest compared to graduates from other fields. But it’s common knowledge that engineers don’t advance far in terms of remuneration, status, position, and job satisfaction, in the later part of their career.
“So career advancement rather than low entry-level remuneration is probably a more compelling reason why many leave the profession.”
But to be a country of technology and innovation, Wong said, you need engineers. Since there are so few engineering students, we have to keep them in the industry.
“You need to be very strong in mathematics if you want to do well. There are so few science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students at secondary level. So, obviously we’re getting even less students coming into engineering at tertiary level.”
It’s easy for engineers to switch careers at a later stage of their careers because they’re very analytical and easy to train. If they want to go into consultancy, planning, finance, or investment, they can pick it up with some training. But the reverse is not true. Non-engineers will find it hard to switch to this profession.
It’s unfair, he said, to say that our grads lack quality. Those who graduated top of the class go on to produce patents. Only a third or less have issues getting hired.
There’s a demand in every field of engineering but employers cannot find the right candidate, so they turn to foreign engineers, he said.
Fresh grads just need to get their foot in the door. Once they’re hired, they can improve their skills because the company will continue to train them and they get to practise doing the job everyday.
“The different standard between graduates from different varsities is among the reasons why we have this problem.
“Then you have grads who shouldn’t even be doing engineering in the first place - they probably did it because of parental or peer pressure, or simply got offered it. Some of them are smart but were distracted and didn’t focus on their studies. Still, they managed to scrape through with a pass. Then they join the working world and realise it’s not good enough to get a job,” he said.
Soft skills, he said, is very important especially in an MNC.
“Expect daily meetings to discuss projects with your counterparts from countries like the US. If you cannot express yourself, how are they going to understand you? You’ll slow the meeting down and waste everyone’s time,” he said, adding that all the literature, and instructions on technology, are in English.
Those who are weak in the language will take a longer time to read. This results in lower productivity.
“You can’t keep checking the dictionary or asking your colleagues.”
EEPN is in the midst of securing funding for its in-base training programme to be continued.
The programme may be shortened to four months but Wong said its quality would not be compromised.
“We’ll keep the basics because that’s important. The rest can be covered by the company that hires them,” he said, adding that financial support from the Government is crucial if Malaysia is to achieve high-income status.
Government scholarship holders should be released to the industry instead of being given non-engineering roles in the public sector.
“Developed countries like Singapore plan for its engineers’ future so that they can contribute to the country’s growth. Look at our country’s needs and offer scholarships in that area.”
EEPN’s other upskilling programmes include funding engineers to do their masters in E&E engineering.
“The response has been overwhelming. About 350 engineers applied but only 139 places were available. Of the 139 engineers that completed their Masters programme, 15 scored a CGPA of 4.0. This shows that our engineers are really smart. Eventually, we hope to provide opportunities for those interested in doing their doctorate.”
Posgraduate studies are important in light of Industry Revolution 4.0, he said. Technology is fast-evolving. Soon a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Engineering degree alone won’t be enough.
“Engineers have to specialise and get involved in research. They’ll need in depth knowledge to help companies break through the next level of innovation.”
Wong, who’s also the Malaysian American Electronics Industry (MAEI) chairman, and American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce honorary governor, said nurturing our talent pool to support state-of-the-art manufacturing and design and development growth, is a key factor.
He said junior engineers could earn between RM2,500 and RM3,500 depending on their location and qualification. High performers can expect promotions, a yearly pay raise of between 10% and 20%, and travel opportunities.
Based on its success, EEPN and MAEI hope that the HRDF and the Government would continue to support its programmes.
“Help us train more yet-to-be-employed engineers to pursue careers in engineering. We’ve written in to HRDF to review our request and hope to receive a favourable reply soon,” said Wong.
Welcoming EEPN’s initiatives, Lai said these could drive the E&E sector up the value chain, and prevent loss of productivity for companies. This is essential for Malaysia to remain competitive.
“If extra training through the EEPN helps graduates fill vacancies that might otherwise be left vacant or filled by foreign engineers, then it’s a good initiative.”
The IEM, he said, also has a structured training scheme that supplements the practical training and experience of engineers to help them develop their professional competency.