Alarm bells over engineer shortage


Training in progress: Technician Tan Yu Teik instructing his student S. Karthieyan on the mechanics of a multipurpose pick-and-place robot arm at the Penang Skills Development Centre in Bayan Lepas. — ZHAFARAN NASIB/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: A nationwide shortage of engineers could hamper the country’s growth, especially in the fields of manufacturing and software development.

The shortage is more acutely felt now because many factories are ramping up production as the country recovers from the pandemic, says Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) Penang immediate past chairman Datuk Jimmy Ong.

“We see three causes for this shortage. First, there were several large foreign direct investments nationwide confirmed about three years ago.

“Many large local companies lost a lot of engineers to the new multinationals.

“Secondly, it’s due to the pandemic. Many factories could not run full force and there were production backlogs. There is now a surge in global demand and factories are in great need of manpower,” he said.

The third cause, said Ong, was the low intake of engineering students in the country’s colleges and universities.

“I brought this matter up with the Finance Minister during our Budget 2022 engagement session.

“The education system needs to be looked at. There is not enough concentration on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects,” he added.

Ong stressed that in some countries, software coding is taught at the primary school level, and Malaysia should follow suit.

“There is a private school in Penang that teaches coding to Form Five and Six students.

“But it is not enough. Children need to be exposed to coding early, so that their young minds can adapt to future upgrades in programming languages.”

Ong said feedback from industry circles reveals a critical shortage of about 14,000 engineers nationwide, with about 6,000 needed in Penang, but this figure is conservative because many other businesses that are shorthanded do not report it.

“One factory in Penang needs 200 engineers. It went to a public university in Pahang to attract the final year students there, but the take-up rate was very low – perhaps because the pandemic made them afraid to move to Penang,” he added.

As an immediate solution, Ong said FMM has been lobbying for the government to allow manufacturers to import engineers from foreign countries.

Malaysian Semiconductor Industry Association president Datuk Seri Wong Siew Hai echoed the need to import foreign engineers.

“Learn how to use other countries’ talents. Singapore and China are hiring Malaysian engineers. A company in Taiwan recently advertised engineering job vacancies to Malaysians.

“There are engineers from Pakistan, Iran, Russia, the Philippines and India who want to join us. Let us do the same. Let them come,” Wong said.

He suggested the government use the semiconductor industry as a testbed by allowing these companies to hire one foreign engineer out of every three needed.

“I understand that the government does not want to deprive Malaysians of jobs, but this strategy actually helps us increase the number of jobs available.

“Say a company needs 60 engineers now. It hires 45 locals and 15 foreigners. Next year, when the project grows and it needs another 200 engineers, then it will hire 50 foreign engineers and 150 local engineers,” he offered as an example.

Clarion (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd managing director TK Tan asked the government to make the job of engineers “sexier”.

He said several small countries in Eastern Europe such as Romania allowed their software engineers to enjoy tax-free income earlier in the decade.

“Now those countries produce more than 20,000 software engineers a year and many European Union companies have set up offices in those countries.”

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