I wholeheartedly support the recent proposal presented by Plantation and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani, advocating for the incorporation of a specialized harvesting course within Malaysia's technical and vocational education and training (TVET) framework. This forward-thinking initiative aims to elevate harvesting to a recognized profession, effectively addressing the persistent labour challenges within the palm oil industry.

Minister Johari has underscored the paramount importance of the palm oil sector, a major contributor of over RM 100 billion to Malaysia's export value. The proposed initiative gains additional significance as it emphasizes the sector's pivotal role in creating job opportunities across the entire value chain.

Having first-hand experience in the industry, I understand the intricacies of harvesting. This demanding task not only requires precise skills in cutting ripe bunches but also intelligence in selectively harvesting only the ripe ones. Additionally, the labour-intensive process of collecting and delivering bunches to designated areas for transport to palm oil mills has traditionally relied on foreign labour. However, not all foreign workers excel in this role due to language barriers and physical constraints. Instead of depending solely on foreign workers, an innovative solution is to tap into the local workforce. By formalizing harvesting as a profession through the proposed TVET course, students can receive proper training, incorporating the latest mechanization techniques from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). This strategic approach not only makes the job more accessible but also addresses the shortage of skilled local workers.

Moreover, it is crucial to pursue accreditation for the proposed TVET course from esteemed professional bodies like the Malaysia Board of Technologists (MBOT), which recognizes technologists and technicians as professionals. This accreditation substantially enhances the value of TVET graduates, making them more readily accepted by employers and the industry. This strategic approach not only effectively addresses the shortage of skilled local workers but also makes the proposed TVET course more appealing due to the associated professional recognition.

Beyond harvesting, the industry relies on foreign workers for various roles, including maintaining and servicing heavy vehicles, plant equipment maintenance, and laboratory work. Hence, TVET courses with professional recognition could be expanded to cover these activities. Collaboration between MPOB and MBOT could play a crucial role in realizing this expansion, especially considering that MPOB already offers relevant short courses in these areas.

The envisioned TVET courses should extend their focus by incorporating advanced technologies like robotics and big data. Graduates would then possess not only fundamental knowledge and skills but also training in cutting-edge technologies. This strategic expansion aims to equip individuals with the expertise needed to address industry challenges and contribute to increased efficiency. Embracing deep technology in the TVET curriculum ensures that graduates are well-prepared for the evolving demands of the industry, fostering innovation and a workforce adept at leveraging sophisticated tools for enhanced productivity.

Salary structures are a perennial concern across all industries. I advocate for compensation that aligns with individual performance, reflecting skills and competencies. Consequently, TVET graduates, armed with specialized

Skills from professional courses, should be entitled to higher salaries than their foreign counterparts. This approach not only recognizes their expertise but also contributes to cultivating a thriving workforce within the industry.

Despite Minister Johari's clarification that this is merely an initial idea with no immediate implementation plans, I am convinced that this forward-thinking initiative effectively addresses the ongoing labour challenges in the palm oil industry. It also aligns with Malaysia's broader objectives of advancing technical education and uplifting professions within the agricultural sector. Through this innovative approach, Malaysia can set the stage for a future driven by a skilled local workforce in its palm oil industry, thereby contributing significantly to the overall growth and stability of the sector.

Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn, a chartered chemical engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is also the author of “A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry”.