THERE is an urgent need to have a paradigm shift and to develop new ideas to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in our country.
According to Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) specialist Wong Chee Fui, who is also a professional engineer and a technologist, despite having set goals to achieve the 60:40 ratio for STEM education in our education policy, Malaysia has not been able to achieve the targeted 60% STEM students for the past 20 years.
Wong, a former executive director at the Institution of Engineers Malaysia (IEM), was commenting on the demand for more engineers in the country, which aims to become a high-technology nation by 2030.
“Engineering studies are perceived to be technical and difficult compared to other degrees such as the arts and economics.
“This is because engineering students are supposed to be trained to achieve the graduate attributes in compliance with the International Engineering Alliance and the Washington Accord standards, which are globally accepted and recognised,” he told StarEdu.
Wong added that although engineers are a regulated profession much like doctors, lawyers and accountants, the general perception that the remuneration for engineers in Malaysia is not on par with that of other professions or even engineers in other countries has led to the low uptake of engineering courses at institutes of higher learning in recent years.
There is an urgent need to improve the welfare and benefits of engineers in Malaysia before we lose our talents to other countries due to globalisation, he warned.
“One way to help attract more students to pick up engineering is by introducing a special allowance – similar to that for doctors – and improving the starting salary of graduate engineers in both the public and private sectors,” he added.
Echoing his sentiments, INTI International University pro vice chancellor Prof Dr Leong Wai Yie said more of what needs to be done is to make engineering more attractive to bright students.
“Educational institutions, employers of engineers, and government policymakers have to move aggressively to address the issues effectively,” said the former IEM vice president.
To encourage more students to study engineering, Prof Leong recommended reforming the curriculum.
“We need to emphasise the creative aspects of engineering and show that it is about solving problems, not just solving equations,” she said, adding that more exposure needs to be given to primary schoolchildren to learn what engineering is.
“Universities should work with local communities, schools and teachers to talk about engineering. It’s important to start working with schools as early as possible – leaving it to the secondary school level is actually too late,” she stressed.
Prof Leong is also of the view that universities can step up on the way they offer careers advice.
“Students need exposure to industry and careers information at the stages at which they are making choices.
“Universities need to do more to partner with industry and local schools to make this happen, providing students with hands-on, work-related experience, and access to recent graduates or apprentices, and demonstrating the exciting contributions engineering makes to current and future issues and how the university engineering degrees will lead to rewarding jobs,” she said.
She added that it is important to give young professionals exposure to different areas of engineering, having them rotate into various site functions over a 12-month period, and allowing them access to senior peers.
Agreeing, UTAR president Prof Datuk Dr Ewe Hong Tat said the demand for professional engineers will continue to be high as science and technology continue to drive the growth of human societies.
“The teaching of STEM-related subjects should emphasise both theory and practical learning. Hands-on experiments will help inspire and develop students’ interest further.
“These experiments should relate to their daily life and natural phenomena so that they can appreciate and understand the importance of STEM,” said Prof Ewe, who is also the Asean Academy of Engineering and Technology (AAET) president.
Science and engineering workshops and fairs, such as the Kuala Lumpur Engineering and Science Fair (KLESF), have been doing a good job in attracting thousands of students to participate each year, he added.Noting a decline in the number of engineering students in recent years, Prof Leong said many factors have contributed to it, including the difficulty of the curriculum, the attractiveness of alternate paths to good technical jobs, and the lack of attractiveness of projected employment paths for engineering graduates.
“This decline has occurred at a time when the employers of engineers face new challenges due to globalisation, offshore outsourcing, and the need to ‘move up the food chain’ in innovation and technical expertise in order to remain competitive – thus creating a demand for more highly qualified engineering graduates,” she said.
Also observing the decline in the intake of engineering students, chartered chemical engineer and fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry Hong Wai Onn said this is not limited to just a few universities.
Describing it as “an alarming issue”, he said the decline is due to many students feeling insecure about their engineering career prospects, especially post-Covid-19.
“They worry that the engineering profession will become obsolete because of the rise of the gig economy.
They ask me about the career prospects of engineers in Malaysia whenever I meet them in the classroom or during group discussions,” he added.
He, however, asserted that given the rapid developments in science and technology, engineering will continue to be one of the most in-demand careers in the country.
On why she would recommend students to be engineers, Prof Leong said engineers can transition into different roles comparatively easily.
“It’s easy for engineers to switch careers at a later stage because they’re very analytical and easy to train.
“If they want to go into consultancy, entrepreneurism, management, planning, finance, invention, data science, analysis, research 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,” she said.
My decision to study engineering was not entirely mine.
My family’s influence was a key factor that led me to enrol in an engineering course. Coming from conservative backgrounds, both my parents viewed science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs as ‘stable and respectable’.
They believed that a career in engineering was the most secure path to a successful future.
Although my parents ultimately did not force me to pursue an engineering degree,
I decided to heed their advice as I trusted that they had my best interest at heart. After university, my career path was a gradual divergence away from engineering rather than a pivotal shift.
Early in my career, I accepted a job as a sales engineer – a role that required someone with an engineering background who could understand each customer’s unique technical problems and then communicate the selling points of an appropriate product or service.
I learnt from this experience that combining systems-based thinking and problem-solving with soft skills such as influence and information gathering maximised my value.
From there, my career path eventually led to business development and business strategy.
At the undergraduate level in engineering, students are imparted not so much with a body of knowledge to perform a particular job, but rather a universal toolkit for analysing and solving problems.
Equipped with such a fundamental and practical skill set, many graduate engineers do not feel confined to stick within ‘pure engineering’ jobs. Hence, engineers can be found working in various fields or starting their own companies.
Mohan Gurusamy, former engineer, now working as a trade consultant for a foreign embassy
As an engineering student, we sometimes work independently while at other times, we work in groups. Having good communication skills goes a long way.
Fortunately, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) focuses on developing soft skills in students.
We are given opportunities to take part in talks and workshops held by its Department of Soft Skills Dependency.
As with most careers, engineers need to constantly improve themselves or else, they will be left behind.
Some tech giants, for example, have recently made large-scale layoffs because of economic depression.
Companies should provide learning opportunities to engineers to allow them to improve their professional knowledge.
I have been actively involved in various extracurricular activities.
I believe this was what gave me the opportunity to join Intel Penang as a custom IP solutions engineering intern.
I would highly suggest that students come out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves.
Participate in competitions to explore and learn how you can make a positive impact on the world.
– Ho Wei Liang, UTAR mechatronics engineering , final year student