Time to ‘STEM’ the engineer shortage tide

A closer look: Some experts and academics have expressed concern that insufficient resources are dedicated to STEM education development and technology literacy.

PETALING JAYA: More investment is needed for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education if we want to save Malaysia from a shortage of engineers, say advocates.

National STEM Association president Prof Datuk Dr Noraini Idris said more resources need to be channelled towards STEM.

Although the Education and Higher Education Ministries received a total of RM64.8bil from Budget 2022, there were no STEM-specific initiatives or allocations, said Prof Noraini, who is also National STEM Association president and Universiti Malaya STEM Centre adviser.

“Since education received the biggest chunk of the Budget, the ministries should make sure that part of it is used for STEM education development and technology literacy.

“Students are not taught high value skillsets. Instead, schools are too focused on low value skills,” she said, adding that coupled with the lack of local role models in engineering, students – unable to create their own innovations – will end up becoming users of foreign technology.

“At the end of the day, we import other people’s technology. We import people,” she said, adding that this would also lead to an outflow of funds from the country.

Prof Noraini said that the Human Resources Ministry, International Trade and Industry Ministry, Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, Education Ministry and Higher Education Ministry need to “seriously sit down together with high-value industry players who have engineering at heart” to redesign STEM education.

Academy of Sciences Malaysia chief executive officer Hazami Habib said based on their engagement with major industry players, the biggest challenge faced by local high-tech industries is the serious shortage of the right engineering and software talent in the country.

“The shortage of talent gets even worse when we have a high proportion of top talents in the country leaving for neighbouring countries for better wages and prospects, thereby leaving local high-tech companies to hire what is left,” she said.

She said the development of a STEM talent pool that is equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills was crucial to ensure an adequate supply of high-skilled STEM talents to support industry demand, yet enrolment in STEM courses at the university level was at 45% in 2021, below the targeted 60%.

UM STEM Centre head and senior lecturer at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Dr Mas Sahidayana Mohktar said the “E” (Engineering) in STEM was not fully emphasised, with the fundamental concepts of engineering lacking in the education system.

“Please invest in teaching teachers by using a comprehensive and integrated approach,” she said, adding that universities and industries were willing to collaborate to enhance STEM education in Malaysia.

Penang Science Cluster CEO Ooi Peng Ee said that the lack of engineers was not only due to the low intake of engineering students at the tertiary level.

“There is also the issue of our universities not producing engineering graduates who meet industry needs,” he said.

Mechanical engineering student Muhammad Zubair Ahmad Fauzi, 21, said that he was not given much exposure to STEM in school and like most others in his batch, had taken his own initiative to dive into the sciences.

“The government should place more emphasis on improving STEM education and exposure at the primary and secondary level,” he said.

“A new curriculum with more practical lessons can be introduced to get students interested in STEM. It is important to emphasise practical, laboratory-based work,” he added.

Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers Penang immediate past chairman Datuk Jimmy Ong said among the causes of the shortage was the low intake of engineering students in the country’s colleges and universities.

Yesterday, in a front page exclusive, The Star reported on a nationwide shortage of engineers that could hamper the country’s growth, especially in the fields of manufacturing and software development.

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