Tackling Malaysia’s digital divide

The ILO and the Malaysian government has teamed up to give TVET a digital upgrade.

Feature | 29 March 2023
Izzaiqa Nur Afiqah Binti Gilin has acquired more digital skills. ©SSTC
For a 22-year-old entrepreneur like Izzaiqa Nur Afiqah Binti Gilin, having a chance to run both her family’s homestay business and her own ginger tea business in Kudasang—a town located in the Ranau District in Sabah State, Malaysia—can never be more inspiring.

“I wanted to be an educator before. But now I am more interested in being an entrepreneur, hence I am focusing more on my business,” she said.

But she found herself lacking some professional skills including those related to digital marketing. She thus last year signed up for a training course, facilitated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its partner, Sabah Skills & Technology Centre, on product handling, digital marketing and customer relations.

There are many more Malaysian workers and entrepreneurs like her who aspire to acquire more digital skills. And the Malaysian government has realised the importance of improving digital skills of the country’s workforce.

However, various challenges remain. For instance, some technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions as well as other types of skills training bodies still struggle to secure instructors who can deliver digital skills training by utilising up-to-date teaching technologies.

The ILO—through its Skills for Prosperity Programme in Malaysia (SfP-Malaysia) which is funded by the United Kingdom government—has assisted the government in this endeavour by providing technical assistance to the Ministry of Human Resources (MoHR) to develop a strategy and capacity for improving digital talent.

Digital skills needs are changing dynamically. "

Panudda Boonpala, Deputy Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
This is the effort to transform digital skills among both trainees and trainers - in accord with the Twelfth Malaysian Plan, the Digital Economy Blueprint, and National 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) Policy.

Recently, SfP-Malaysia co-hosted a knowledge-sharing seminar on “Digital Technology Utilization and Industry Skills Needs” in Shah Alam, Selangor with MOHR. Upskilling and enhancing future-readiness of Malaysia’s workforce - and the corresponding need to upgrade the nation’s TVET and skill development systems - were at the heart of this hybrid in-person and online summit.

A. Maniam, MOHR’s Deputy Secretary General (Policy & International), stressed at the seminar that the world of work is rapidly changing and digitalization is the key toward developing a competitive edge.

“But developing digital talent is not a simple task that can be achieved overnight,” he added

Panudda Boonpala, Deputy Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific emphasized that digital skills should be developed among women and people in the vulnerable groups.

“The ILO’s recent report Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook 2022 reveals that while IT and information services is the region’s fastest growing sector in terms of employment growth, only 9.4 million persons worked in the sector in 2021, corresponding to just 0.5 per cent of total employment,” she said.

Ms Panudda emphasized the importance of both lifelong learning and inclusion. “Digital skills needs are changing dynamically. This leads to the importance of lifelong learning and continuous professional development of workers, trainees and TVET instructors,” she said.

“At the same time, gender inequality in the region remains rife with all but one of the top ten high employment growth sectors benefitting men workers over women workers,” she added.

The new technologies – and the specific worker skills demanded by those technologies – were then explored by three thought leaders: Ts Lim Hui Yan, Executive Director of Gamuda Engineering Sdn Bhd / Alternate Council Member and Technical & IBS Committee Member of the Master Builders Association Malaysia; Ts Jonas Jeyaraj Anthony, the former Executive Director of Corporate Management at Panasonic Group Malaysia ; and Jayaraju Narayanasamy, Assistant General Manager, Head of Department (Operation), Yamagata (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.

Implanted chips to monitor health, autonomous vehicles and facilities that produce batteries for electric vehicles are just a handful of the innovations TVET systems must prepare for, Ts Jonas explained in a presentation that captivated almost 200 participants. Connectivity, human-machine interaction and digital-to-physical conversion in the manufacturing sector necessitates upskilling and collaboration with TVET and higher learning institutions, he said.

Almost 80% of Gamuda’s construction work is now on a digital platform, said Ts Hui, and the company has established training centres, with scholarships for indigenous workers, to prepare the future workforce. In the printing industry, said Mr Jayaraju, digitization is helping increase quality, automate many manual tasks previously performed manually and eliminate human error, but the reskilling and upskilling demands for 4IR production are profound.

Tom Shepherd, Head of Bilateral Diplomacy Department, British High Commission Kuala Lumpur said: “It’s really great to see the industry taking the lead in shaping what is required from the workforce and driving skills development so that all Malaysians can benefit from changes in technology.”

Keeping the trainers, curriculum and training delivery up to date with the dizzying pace of change is crucial, said Datuk Shamsuddin of the Malaysian Employers Federation.

“Technology lifespan is less than 20 months,” he said. “However, to introduce new curriculum and amending the curriculum may take more than 20 months. Should the policy makers revamp and review the approval processes to ensure the relevance of curriculum to the market needs?”