Successful pilot of Malaysia’s Premier Digital Tech Institutions digital talent pipeline

Surina Shukri, MDEC CEO (centre, red jacket) with stakeholders of the Premier Digital Tech Institutions.

While Malaysian CEOs are crying out for skilled graduates as they strive to fill STEM based vacancies, the cold reality is that there are around 200,000 unemployed graduates in the country with the highest portion said to be of those with computer science (CS)-related degrees and diplomas. There have been various numbers thrown up as well but these tend to build on other unsubstantiated estimates. The most recent credible estimate comes from a 2018 research by MIDF Research, the research arm of a financial group, which used data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia and estimated that there were 204,000 unemployed graduates in the country as at May 2018.

For students who have invested 2 years to 4 years of their lives to pick up a career skill, that’s 204,000 too many unemployed graduates. This is especially glaring amongst the CS-related grads with one estimate that up to a fifth of the unemployed grads are CS majors.

While there have been various explanations put forth to pinpoint the reason for the high number, ranging from poor command of English to market mismatch to a public sector quota system that allocates too many Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) course seats to the majority Bumiputera group where interest in STEM is poor, the reality is that there has been no rigorous examination of the root cause.

But Surina Shukri, CEO of Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) is aware of the wrong impression this high ratio can give to STEM based education and says they are working to “demystify that to find where the disconnect is. We need to drill down on the numbers to really understand what they mean because the various numbers floating out there lead to a misleading picture.”

Surina was speaking at an event on June 17 to share the early results of a programme that was created specifically to solve this problem and ensure Malaysia has a strong supply of skilled Digital Economy ready talent.

The Premier Digital Tech Institutions (PDTI) initiative was introduced in Aug 2017 when eight universities and five polytechnic schools were given Premier Digital Tech University and Preferred Digital Tech Polytechnic status. The selection was made by both government and industry players who looked at various criteria to see if they added up to a condusive learning ecosystem. Among the criteria – employability of their students, the extent of teaching staff having industry experience, mentoring, how robust final year project assignments were, the research linkages with industry and career placement services.

Subsequently, the CS-related programmes of these institutions were restructured to be industry relevant for students to be equipped with needed skills. The restructuring is ultimately aimed at creating what Surina and Prof Mohd Saleh Jaafar (pic), deputy director general, Higher Education Department, describe as “an experiential learning” environment. Mohd Saleh represented Minister of Education Mazlee Malik who was supposed to attend the event.

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PDTI value still not known to public

Clearly academic leaders see value in gaining PDTI status, even though the value of having that status has not yet percolated down to customers ie the students and parents. Two CEOs recently enrolled their children in computer science programmes locally but neither  was aware of what the Premier Digital Tech Institution is or means.

Surina says they are aware of this and hope the publicity from the strong results of the pilot and inclusion of new industry partners such as Oracle, SAS, Jobstreet and homegrown cloud provider, RunCloud, will help spread the word so that when parents and their kids look for any CS programmes, they will want to choose one offered by a PDTI.

Meanwhile, Mohd Saleh points out that one of the key aspects of the PDTI is that it also brings faculty to industry. “This addresses a core complaint that academics are not in tune with current industry practices. But through this industry exposure our faculty can deliver contextual teaching to students.” According to him the MOE is hoping for more industries to step forward to welcome university and polytechnic faculty to learn and observe their current practices. He feels the PDTI has resulted in genuine industry linkages with academia. “It is no more lip service by industry but real input and engagement by them.”

He also emphasizes the expansion of the PDTI beyond just the IT courses. “Digital skills will be like oxygen and will be needed in all other sectors like manufacturing and services and we will expand this to other disciplines in the future.”

While there are many conversations around various aspects of building a strong Digital Economy ecosystem, clearly talent is a foundation pillar. Surina says MDEC is having many discussions with industry on how to scale Malaysia’s talent initiatives and collectively working with various parties coming up with a talent development framework. The ongoing efforts around the PDTI to build a scalable model is helpful and should accelerate the timeline in developing this framework.

The urgency of introducing such a Digital Economy aligned talent pipeline cannot be underestimated as Surina found out. “We organized a CEO roundtable earlier this year on the issue of talent and normally you cannot get everyone invited to show up. We had 100% attendance with a 3-hour session.”

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