• Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim

STEM is crucial and not negotiable

On April 5 in Paris, the director-general of Unesco opened an event organised by Malaysia’s International Centre for South-South Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation, titled “Embracing the Future: Improving the Quality of Science Instruction in Schools”.

Irina Bokova said, “The world today needs more science, better science, more inclusive science. In this setting, I believe we must make the most of the greatest renewable energy we have. This is human ingenuity. This is about providing solutions that are sustainable to tackle a wide range of challenges — in energy, climate change, food security, water management, health and, eventually, peace.

Fundamentally, this is about human rights, about empowering every woman and man. Science, technology and innovation are vital to take this vision forward, and it must start on the school benches.”

Malaysian schools have started to take this vision forward. The challenge is to sustain this vision as the nation focuses on being developed by 2020. In 2014, a mere 21% of students chose to pursue the science stream, which is perceived as difficult. And career counsellors in schools, or parents, are none the wiser to tell them otherwise. This figure drops further as students pursue tertiary education. A tweak of the definition of what is the science stream is now in place in schools, which may be less of an obstacle in the near future.

One of the reasons parents have a neutral stance about their children pursuing the science stream is that they are unaware of the types of jobs that it offers, unless the parents themselves are in that sector. Here is some insight.

Careers in the field of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) pay better and have higher employment rates.

By 2020, there will be a science, technology and innovation shortage of one million jobs, comprising 20,000 research scientists, engineers and technologists; 480,000 implementers, including scientists, technologists, applied scientists, engineers, doctors, architects and ICT personnel; and as many as 500,000 support services staff from the technical, vocational education and training (TVET) sector, science officers, nurses and ICT sector.

The game-changer here is to transform TVET to meet industry demand. About 60% of the 1.5 million jobs that will be created during the 11th Malaysia Plan will require TVET-related skills. It is TVET that will act as the catalyst in producing high-skilled workers.

New jobs will also be created specifically in the areas of healthcare (181,000), electrical and electronics (157,000), oil, gas and energy (52,300), and communications content and infrastructure (43,162). The critical jobs are for the electrical and electronics (E&E) sector, financial services (246,910 accountants to be exact), business services (including financial analysts) and oil and gas (including drilling engineers).

The E&E sector, which contributed 24.5% or RM229.37 billion to gross domestic product in 2012, is an especially interesting sector. It contributes 32.9% or RM231.03 billion to total exports and 49.2% or RM231.43 billion to total manufacturing exports. In 2015, exports of E&E products accounted for RM277.9 billion and contributed 44.4% of total manufactured goods. However, there is still an urgent need to push towards innovation of new market solutions of higher product complexities and value-add.

The 2015 to 2020 strategy is for the E&E sector to be an enabler to spearhead cross-sector collaborations and provide solutions in other sectors. Focus clusters — namely, light emitting diode, secure socket layers, the Internet of Things, integrated circuit design, advanced packaging, expert manufacturing and drones — have been identified as areas that will in turn promote and enhance other sectors like medical devices, rubber-based and wood-based products, textiles, palm oil-based products, pharmaceuticals, transport, metal, aerospace, food processing and re-manufacturing.

The World Bank, in its Malaysia Economic Monitor, continues to stress that firms generally identify non-routine and other soft skills as a key constraint which in turn leads to job vacancies. Some 45.8% of firms say job applicants lack English language proficiency, 36.9% claim the ability to communicate is poor, 29.9% state that creativity and innovation are lacking while 25% see problem-solving as non-existent.

There are jobs aplenty. Currently, diploma holders are snapped up long before they graduate. Degree holders must be more patient. There must be willingness to reskill and upskill if the need arises.

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has indicated that the emerging technologies positioned to have a big impact on our economy and its productivity are digital technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and green technology.

The National Biotechnology Policy was launched in 2005 to lay the foundation to build a competitive biotechnology industry. So, the same should be done for the other emerging technologies to map out in detail the specifications, demand and supply and the outcome.

There should be no hesitation in promoting and engaging foreign and domestic investments in these technologies and collaborating with international entities to access new technology, expertise and markets.

Emerging technologies will be required to emulate our dynamic E&E sector. Importantly, the ability to create jobs and code and analyse big data has become crucial. The education system must without doubt evolve to take the nation to this next level.

The Edge

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