Engineers needed for palm oil sector

WHENEVER I speak to undergraduates and young professionals, I realise that they are under the impression that a degree in chemical engineering may lead to a narrow list of career options.

Very few even see the link between this degree and the palm oil processing industry.

It does not take long to notice the unpopularity of this industry. Just ask around.

In reality, Malaysia is currently the second largest producer and exporter of palm oil globally, after Indonesia.

The advancement of the palm oil industry is a testament to the nation’s achievement in terms of its contribution to the gross domestic product, employment opportunities, poverty eradication, and the narrowing of the income divide between urban and rural communities.

Much of what makes a good chemical engineer, including changing raw materials into useful products, can bring job satisfaction and success in this rapidly growing, globally important industry.

If palm oil processing promises such opportunities, you may wonder why so many people are turning away from this industry. Well, let me offer some thoughts.

Lack of awareness

When thinking about career options, very few of today’s youth choose to enter the palm oil processing industry.

This could be because they do not understand this industry and have no clue as to how they can contribute to it.

In the 1960s, especially with the establishment of Felda, many mechanical engineers were employed to work in the milling sector.

To this day, the palm oil milling sector is still heavily populated by them but there are not many chemical engineers.

Why? Maybe the palm oil

processing industry has not reached out to make the sector relevant to chemical engineers,

or maybe, dare I say, these careers are not attractive enough for today’s youth since this industry is perceived as remote, dangerous, and difficult.

Whatever it is, a paradigm shift is needed to resolve the talent shortage in this sector.

Prospects in palm oil processing

While there are engineering degrees offered to address specific industry’s needs, there are hardly degrees focused on palm oil processing.

The underlying message being sent from this lack of focus on palm oil-related engineering courses is that while parents may agree that the palm oil industry offers a good career path, they will quickly qualify that statement with, “well, but

not for my kid.”

As a result, today’s youth fall back on what they know. They are making career decisions without realising what the palm oil industry can offer. They end up taking the paths most easily available and recognisable to them.

There are some professional institutions dedicated to raising awareness about career prospects in the palm oil processing industry among young people.

For example, the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Palm Oil Processing Special Interest Group’s University Roadshow 2019-2020 has sessions to present the truth about palm oil to undergraduates and talk about the career prospects in this industry.

The role of chemical engineers

Much of a chemical engineer’s work is based on cross-cutting technical knowledge and competencies, such as process technologies, thermodynamics, heat transfer, mass transfer, and the likes.

Chemical engineers in the palm oil processing industry – like in other industries – also rely on the knowledge of mathematics and science to maximise process efficiency as well as to overcome technical problems safely and economically.

Nonetheless, working with process operation is not the only career option the industry can offer. Chemical engineers also have a significant role to play in plant design.

Chemical engineers can apply their technical knowledge to figure out technical issues and estimate investment costs.

They also oversee the building of a project from procurement and construction to commissioning.

For those who like research and development, the palm oil processing industry always needs fresh minds to invent and develop new technologies to enhance the competitiveness and resilience of the industry globally.

Chemical engineers can also work as quality assurance or process improvement professionals. This not only helps plants avoid legal problems but also identify gaps and future opportunities to improve operations, making them more safe and sustainable.

For those who enjoy working with people, a number of engineering companies and suppliers of products and solutions employ technical professionals.

Technical professionals are trusted advisors to their customers as they provide, not only technical support, but also onsite training to users.

So, chemical engineers have a wide range of career options in the palm oil milling industry.

It is unfortunate that today’s youth are unaware of the opportunities that the industry can offer but it does not have to remain that way.

Start taking advantage of the many available resources to spark a newfound interest in the palm oil processing industry.HONG WAI ONN

Chemical engineer

Kuala Lumpur
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