Most Malaysians are familiar with the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” jobs. The term “white-collar”, derived from the colour of the dress shirts worn by European and American office workers in the 19th and 20th centuries, generally refers to persons who perform managerial or administrative work in an office or administrative setting and who are paid monthly salaries.
The term “blue collar” is used for workers who perform skilled and unskilled manual labour and trade jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, plantation and other similar industries. It originated from the dark blue cotton denim or chambray shirts worn by these workers who were generally less educated and paid less (although they seem to earn more now due to the increasing demand for skilled workers in recent years).
There has been arguments about the origin of the term “new collar” jobs. Some claim that it was already in use as far back as 2005 to refer to highly skilled workers with a strong foundation in information technology. But others say this term was first used by IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty in 2016, who categorised “new collar” jobs as work that were created as a result of Internet technology and contemporary technological advancements such as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence compounded by global digitalisation.
These new jobs place greater emphasis on the mastering of relevant skills instead of the acquisition of academic qualifications. Thus, unlike the more traditional white and blue collar workers, new collar workers are individuals who acquire the requisite technical, vocational and soft skills through non-traditional educational pathways but with the caveat that these skills need to be accredited by appropriate industrial certification programmes.
The most common non-traditional pathway, often accorded lesser importance in Malaysia, is technical and vocational education and training (TVET), where students do not learn merely for the sake of learning but rather for the sake of work, which then makes them highly employable.
We are now probably facing the most challenging times of our lives with Industrial Revolution 4.0, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, green economy and informal gig employment causing disruptive changes in all societies. These forces have already rendered many jobs redundant. Given the manner in which technology is reshaping almost every industry, it is expected that these forces will continue to severely impact existing jobs, both in terms of numbers and job content.
The 2016 World Bank Report forecasts that two-thirds of jobs in the developing world are susceptible to automation and the World Economic Forum (2018) says that almost 50% of companies expect that automation will cause some reduction in their full-time workforce by 2022. Closer to home, Chang and Phu (2016), as reported in an ILO (International Labour Organisation) Working Paper, forecast that 56% of the jobs in Asean are at risk of automation over the next 20 years.
In terms of job content, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016) forecasts that between 50% and 70% of jobs will see some form of transformation due to specific tasks being automated. Similarly, Mckinsey Global Institute (2017) predicts that 60% of all occupations will have at least 30% of their activities automated.
These new challenges will exacerbate the high unemployment rate, particularly youth unemployment, if the relevant stakeholders fail to take the necessary action. Among others, this requires youths to be armed with market relevant skills.
However, it is not all gloom and doom as these technological advancements are a double-edged sword. As much as it renders jobs redundant, it will also create new ones. The World Economic Forum (2018) forecasts that 1.74 million new jobs will be created globally by 2022. The marked difference will be in terms of the different skill sets required.
Malaysia is no exception. Digitalisation, automation, Industry 4.0, new technologies such as cloud computing and Internet of Things coupled with the gig economy are also transforming work. A joint study by the World Bank, agencies under the Human Resources Ministry, Talent Corp and Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (Ilmia) in 2018 revealed that 50% of jobs in Malaysia are at high risk of automation while another 25% are at medium risk.
Most of the emerging jobs here are related to digital technology. Demand for digital talent is high even across traditional sectors but supply remains relatively low. This means employers not only need to positively identify potential talent with the right hybrid skills and traits but also constantly upgrade them through re-skilling and up-skilling.
The government also has to play an active role. In this regard, it is heartening to note that it is adopting a proactive stance, as evident from the mid-term review of the 11th Malaysian Plan 2016–2020 (11MP), which seeks to create skilled and innovative human capital to meet the requirements of industry. Two key initiatives of the 11MP to reform the labour market are generating skilled jobs and revising salaries and wages, both of which are actively promoted by new collar jobs and TVET.
It is also heartening to note that the Human Resources Minister has discarded the dilatory approach of his predecessors, as demonstrated by his recent statement on the need for new collar workers. He has also reiterated the government’s commitment towards TVET, which is expected to play a major role in meeting the demand for “middle skilled” workers in this new collar era.
But first, government needs to change the negative public perception of TVET, which has always been an important learning platform but has not been accorded the same treatment as other branches of education. Due to misinformation, Malaysian parents and students prefer academic qualifications and view TVET as the option for those who are less academically inclined.
There have been some positive developments lately, however. The government is committed to making TVET the top choice of students within the next five years.
Employability of TVET graduates from polytechnic colleges has increased from 79.5% in 2015 to 96.1% in 2018. For community college graduates, it rose from 91.2% in 2015 to 96.5% in 2018. Where TVET graduates are concerned, 92% of them are employed.
The downside is that salaries for TVET graduates are relatively low. According to M. Kulasegaran, almost 70% of TVET graduates earn less than RM1,500 per month, which is grossly inadequate.
The government needs to find ways to overcome this anomaly, otherwise the stigma attached to TVET will only be coagulated. It will also hamper efforts to increase the percentage of skilled workers from the present 28% to 35%.
For far too long, there has been a lackadaisical attitude both by teaching institutions and training providers towards equipping workers and job seekers with market relevant skills. Too much focus is being given to the more “glamorous” qualifications, although employment opportunities for such professions and vocations may have reached saturation point.
It was recently announced that the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) would clearly set out strategies to achieve advanced nation status. Among others, special focus would be given to human capital development, taking due cognisance of the impact of globalisation, climate change, demographic changes, migration shifts, job redundancy and emergence of new and different forms of jobs.
The Human Resources Ministry has been engaging with employers to undertake initiatives to develop such skills through a variety of mechanisms, incentives and assistance programmes, but more needs to be done.
In this regard, I urge the government to fully adopt and implement ILO’s human-centred agenda for the future of work that focuses on increasing investment in people’s capabilities via re-skilling and up-skilling, training institutions and lifelong learning, increasing investments in the institutions of work to ensure greater work-life balance, economic equality and security and showing greater commitment to decent and sustainable work by realigning economic practices and social policies.
These initiatives will help build up the workforce required by these transformations and also create a future that ensures equal opportunity, economic security and social justice for all strata of society.
CHANDRA MOHAN S. T
Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis
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