FOLLOWING the release of the 2023 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination results, I have engaged in numerous discussions and noticed a concerning trend that warrants attention.

Despite the critical role of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) in fostering innovation and economic growth, many SPM graduates are being discouraged from these fields due to misconceptions about government support, career prospects, and income potential. A prevalent belief among parents is that these fields offer fewer career opportunities compared to more traditionally esteemed professions.

Addressing Misconceptions about STEM and TVET

Contrary to these misconceptions, the government has been prioritizing STEM and TVET education to help propel the tech-driven economy. The government aims to increase the science-to-arts ratio among students from the current 45:55 to 60:40, highlighting its commitment to these fields.

STEM-related industries are facing a high demand for skilled professionals. Engineering degrees accredited by the Board of Engineers Malaysia (BEM), a statutory authority representing the engineering profession in Malaysia, are well-recognized both nationally and internationally. Malaysia's engineer-to-population ratio stands at 1:170, considerably lower than the 1:100 ratio in developed countries like Germany and France. This disparity highlights the urgent need to encourage more students to pursue careers in engineering fields.

TVET, often mistakenly viewed as less prestigious and associated with students who either leave academic fields or lack top academic qualifications, holds immense value. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 6.1% of Malaysian youth enrolled in TVET institutions in 2022, compared to 23.8% in Singapore and 14.2% in South Korea. If TVET were less valuable, why do these more developed countries have higher proportions of TVET graduates?

A Promising Outlook for STEM and TVET Learners

In 2023, Malaysia attracted over RM300 billion in investments, the highest approved investments in the country's history. To sustain this momentum, STEM and TVET graduates will play a crucial role in drawing high-value investors.

The government has just announced an additional RM200 million for TVET programs, expected to benefit 13,000 youths, financing studies in energy transition, technology and digital, high-value electrical and electronics, agriculture, and rare earth elements.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim envisions Malaysia becoming a global hub for semiconductor production and is committed to investing in homegrown tech talent, highlights the promising future for STEM and TVET fields. The government plans to train 60,000 highly skilled local semiconductor professionals, with a planned investment of at least RM25 billion over the next decade under the National Semiconductor Strategy.

Google's announcement to invest RM9.4 billion in Malaysia, projected to generate over RM15.04 billion in economic impact and create 26,500 jobs by 2030, further underscores the need for the country to produce sufficient talent in these fields.

To address salary disparities, the BEM has recommended increasing starting salaries for engineers. Additionally, the government is considering higher salaries for TVET graduates to recognize their value. These initiatives, though in early stages, demonstrate the government's commitment to encouraging more youth to pursue careers in these fields.

Essential Skills for Career Success

Many people claim that there are poor career prospects in STEM and TVET fields. However, success in these careers depends not only on academic achievements but also on developing essential transferable skills. Academic excellence alone does not guarantee career success; the ability to apply knowledge in real-world situations, adapt to new circumstances, and develop practical skills often plays a more significant role in achieving long-term success.

Effective communication, encompassing clarity, active listening, and persuasive expression, forms the foundation for building relationships and achieving goals across various professional contexts. Clear communication ensures ideas are conveyed accurately and understood by all parties, while active listening fosters mutual respect and understanding. Persuasive expression enables individuals to advocate effectively for their ideas and influence outcomes, essential in negotiations, presentations, and collaborative projects.

Teamwork is vital for collaboration and leveraging diverse perspectives, fostering collective success in today's interconnected world. Working effectively in a team involves recognizing and valuing the unique strengths and viewpoints of each member. This collaborative approach not only enhances creativity and problem-solving but also builds a supportive and dynamic work environment where collective goals can be achieved more efficiently and innovatively.

Critical thinking, involving objective analysis, rigorous evaluation, and informed decision-making, equips individuals to navigate complexity and adapt to evolving challenges with agility and insight. Critical thinkers are adept at assessing situations from multiple angles, identifying potential solutions, and making decisions based on evidence and logical reasoning. This skill is particularly crucial in fast-paced and ever-changing environments where the ability to think on one's feet and respond to unforeseen challenges is highly valued.

Reevaluating Opportunities in STEM and TVET

It is crucial to make well-informed decisions based on accurate information and to reevaluate the opportunities available in STEM and TVET fields, as they are vital for driving innovation, economic growth, and societal advancement. Academic excellence alone does not ensure success, especially in STEM and TVET professions. Therefore, mastering transferable skills is essential, as it enhances professional performance and opens up diverse opportunities for growth and advancement.

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