March 11th, 2016

Embracing vocational education

Now that the revelry has ended and the confetti cleared from the school hallways, following the release of the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) results last week, it is time for our “future leaders” to face the conundrum of selecting their desired fields of study and short-listing their preferred institutions of higher learning.

In the coming weeks, there will be sleepless nights, increased hair loss and heated deliberations between the students and their parents, guardians, mentors and teachers over their future and decisions made primarily with the aim of enabling them to enter a better paying profession upon graduation.

File pix) Politeknik Kota Baru students demonstrating how their invention, a ‘straw filter’, can be used to drink water directly and safely from Sungai Semarak. There are more than 35 polytechnics offering vocational education in Malaysia.
While I am glad that parents are less authoritarian these days and less likely to force their children to study to become doctors, engineers or lawyers, there is still a long way to go before parents and students alike give more serious consideration to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes as a viable education option. It was indeed timely that MIC president Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam, who is also the health minister, recently advocated for students who had completed their SPM exams to take polytechnic courses.

In Malaysia, TVET is nothing new. In fact, it has being quietly donning a party dress, diligently applying makeup and patiently waiting for students to come over to say “Hi” since way back in 1964 when the Technical and Vocational Educational Division was established, followed by the opening of the nation’s first polytechnic, Politeknik Ungku Omar in Ipoh, Perak, in 1969.

Perhaps, being a 52-year-old, it has acquired wrinkles and cellulite along the way, but it is gratefully receiving makeover help from the government in the recent spate of public campaigns to “beautify” and promote TVET.

Under the 11th Malaysia Plan and in tandem with the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2015-2025), the government has projected that approximately 1.5 million jobs will be created by 2020 and 60 per cent will require TVET-related skills.

Polytechnic education focuses on practice-based learning and, more importantly, is often combined with work attachments. Working as apprentices with industry partners is part of their syllabus.

This allows them to gain work experience and get up close with the real-world demands of the industries. There are more than 35 polytechnics throughout Malaysia.

Fresh from the completion of the Polytechnic Transformation Plan (2010-2015) that provided the roadmap to develop and strengthen the polytechnic system, there seems to be encouraging signs that TVET is steadily gaining grounds.

The Higher Education Department said that while student enrolment at universities across the country for the first semester this year was estimated at 60,000, admission to polytechnics and community colleges was projected to be around 90,000.

My former neighbour, Hasliza, is one of those who have benefited from having taken the TVET path. Making the decision to return to her books after her SPM in the late 1980s, she never imagined that she would have the chance to undergo a year-long study programme in the United Kingdom, especially with her poor SPM results.

The 39-year-old mother of three, who has been working for 16 years at a leading Malaysian automotive company, belongs to a group of bachelor’s degree students from a local training institution who will be spending the final year of their studies at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.

Leading up to her degree programme, she had completed her certificate studies and received her diploma from the same training institute over a period of eight years while working full-time.

Like Hasliza, there is thankfully increasing understanding among students that TVET is a practical option, particular for those who do not have stellar exam results.

Be it through diploma or degree programmes, and based on the latest offerings of TVET providers via collaboration with reputable international institutions, even MBA and post-graduate programmes are not out of reach for Malaysians.

While the government and TVET providers continue to improve their academic programmes and syllabuses to make it more relevant to industry needs, it would be good if there is an increase in corporate participation in TVET.

Organisations, especially large conglomerates and multinational companies which are key players in their respective business sectors, can step up to offer more work training opportunities for TVET students.

By hiring more of these trainees, the TVET ecosystem is able to play an important role towards making sure that the nation has a steady supply of industry-ready workers and, ultimately, meetthe country’s objective of developing a knowledge-driven society.

An often cited example is the dual training concept practiced in Germany where nearly 60 per cent of workers train as apprentices.

This has made Germany the toast of Europe, with the lowest rate of youth unemployment at around seven per cent. In addition to one or two days spent at vocational schools, apprentices spend three to four days a week at a company that provides hands-on practical training, typically lasting between two and three years.

This approach can be a feasible solution to provide young Malaysians with an educational path that is both practical and offers employment opportunities.

Allow young to choose career paths

What do you want to be when you grow up?” I overheard a well-to-do relative put this question to one of my nephews at a family gathering recently and the question stopped me in my tracks as I was heading for the food on the dining table.

Aha, that same difficult question again? I said to myself as I looked at the boy from afar, curiously waiting with concealed excitement for his answer.

The age-old question never fails to thrill me. Please, please let it be Superman or Batman or James Bond, I was quietly hoping. The 7-year-old boy was obviously baffled.

He gave the old man a deep frown and that “what-kind-of-a-question-was-that” look and to my disappointment, he blurted “I don’t know”.

Yes, you get that kind of reaction from the younger generation today. That’s a good topic for another discussion.

Seriously, you should not ask any kid that kind of question. For what purpose? But, we keep on doing so, perhaps due to our culture. I don’t know. It has become a norm.

It’s like parents should expect to hear this question posed to their children every now and then, as if they, at the tender age of 7, have already decided what they want to be.

Would you expect the answer to be “I want to be a gynaecologist?” Of course, not. But, that’s the answer I told my boys to give if they were to be asked about their ambitions by their uncles or aunts.

Let’s spook them, I told my boys. I, for sure, had problems answering that question when I was a child. It filled with me anxiety. I had to think of a good job as an answer and, subsequently, lie to appease the elders.

PETALING JAYA 28 February 2013. 'Firemen' putting out a fire at a hotel at KidZania first anniversay celebration. NSTP/Syaharim Abidin

As if at 7, I could think ahead and was visionary when I still had problems tying my shoelaces.

Later, I learned to give standard answers, either a doctor or lawyer which I am not right now although I can self-treat my stress and not-too-often successfully argue my cases with my queen and little princess at home.

I also had a hard time thinking and stating my three choices cita-cita (ambitions) in my report card, every year during my primary school years in the 1970s.

I remember writing Batman, Superman and Ultraman and got an earful from my teacher.

Why can’t I be like Batman? Rich, beautiful car, nice suit and I get to beat up bad people with my identity protected.

So, I wrote soldier, police and teacher. My class teacher was happy, for the obvious choices. This problem continued to plague me in secondary school.

I still had problems deciding what I wanted to be or do. After getting my Sijil Rendah Pelajaran results, I had to choose either to enrol myself in the Science or Social Science streams.

As I was studying at a full-boarding school, I had no one, except my class and dorm friends, to consult with. At 16, the majority of us did not have the slightest idea what we wanted to be.

So, the majority of our decisions was based on our interests or on what we hated the most at that time. I also learned later on that I had many interests and they changed after several years.

I also discovered that each time I became interested in something, I would dive into it and become good at it until I started to get bored or when it strikes me to ask “What’s next?”

I recently checked with my boys whether they were also required to write three occupation choices and they answered in the negative. That’s good, I thought.

I stopped asking children, a long time ago, what they want to be when they grow up. This is after I learned about multi-potential people and there are many of us, multipotentialites.

It’s an educational and psychological term referring to a pattern found among individuals who have diverse interests across numerous domains and capable of success in many endeavours or professions.

Most times, they are confronted with unique decisions as a result of these choices. We are special but we are not specialists. I was good in soccer but because I was wearing glasses I had to choose hockey and ended up representing my district at the secondary level and later my university at the matriculation level.

I played rugby too at the college level. I was also good at table tennis and a chess champion in primary school. I also took up cooking, became engrossed in it to the extent of creating my own recipes.

I had no problems hosting and catering to a battalion of 30 people. I was a farmer and a teacher, too. I taught myself to swim and, who knows,

I could immerse myself in scuba diving next after I have, hopefully, become a one-star horseman in the next couple of years.

So, if your child is showing signs of this “condition”, fret not. If he says he wants to be Superman, let him be. “Yes, go help poor and helpless people,”

I would say. ​Yes, they need guidance from us, parents, when it comes to choosing their careers. But, if they are interested in something, I’d suggest letting them pursue their interest and enjoy life. It’s a pity to see “specialists” whose only passion is their profession.

The world needs us, multipotentialites. We are not boring people because we have a lot of interests.

To quote a line from William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) in the movie Braveheart, “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”