Sunday, March 20 2005

 OPINION: The unemployable Malaysian graduate 

Eighty thousand Malaysian graduates are jobless, and the number is rising. ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD examines the reasons and discovers that many have become virtually unemployable.

By Abdul Razak Ahmad

SALINA Jaafar is a graduate of Universiti Malaya, one of the country's top universities. She took up Information Technology, one of the hottest fields of study. But it has been a year since she graduated, and Salina still can't land a job.
The days when a scroll was a passport to employment may be over, a very painful realisation for Salina.
"I've gone for more interviews than I can remember, but in each case I got (was) turned down either because I didn't have the specific skills they were looking for, or because I didn't have any experience," she says.
Salina is now looking for a job in sales. Most are commission-based and come with meagre monthly salaries of up to RM300. Some jobs pay only a commission
"The four years I spent in university studying IT has come to nothing," she laments. She's not the only one complaining.
Salina symbolises a fast-growing section of the unemployed in Malaysia: young and highly educated. There are 80,000 graduates in the country without jobs, and the number looks set to rise.
It is hard to imagine how a country that attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign workers can have such a high number of its educated unemployed.
But there is no mistaking the alarm bells government officials are ringing.
The 80,000 figure does not include the over 100,000 graduates who will enter the job market this year.
"Some of them will not be able to find jobs, so the figure will rise significantly," says Shamsuddin Bardan, executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation.
"Graduate unemployment is a worrying trend because the numbers have been increasing in the past several years," says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia vice chancellor Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin.
The university has been tracking the employment rate of its graduates for the past three years. It distributes questionnaires at each year's convocation ceremony, held six months after final examinations.
The feedback for last year's graduating batch of 4,450 students was especially troubling: 38 per cent of them had been unable to find work. "It was the highest unemployment rate we've ever recorded," says Salleh.
Why is this happening?
It would be easy to blame a troubled economy. But the economy is not in bad shape, and the last time it was mainly to blame for unemployment in Malaysia was in the mid-1980s.
A more likely explanation, says Shamsuddin, is a changing economy anchored in the services sector.
Being reliant on services means employers require people who not only have knowledge but who possess the "soft skills" as well: people who can communicate effectively, and analyse and solve problems efficiently.
The employability of the average Malaysian graduate is becoming more dependent on a mastery of these soft skills. The growing number of unemployed, he says, is mainly because many arrive in the job market poorly equipped with the skills required by a changing economy.
Of the 12 criteria listed by 115 employers surveyed in a study on unemployment conducted by the National Economic Action Council, the top three were soft skills: good communications, being presentable and having a reasonable grasp of general knowledge. Academic performance only came eighth.
"The key criteria employers look for in potential hires are a good command of English, a good attitude and a strong work ethic," says Suresh Thiru, vice-president of operations at online recruitment company JobStreet.com, which has 800,000 registered job seekers.
"Many are unable to secure a good job because their English is poor," he adds.
With the number of undergraduates in public and private institutions of higher learning set to increase from about 500,000 in 2001 to nearly 700,000 this year, the problem is likely to get worse, regardless of how well the economy performs. It is painfully obvious among public university graduates.
"A large number of the graduates of public universities fail to make good employee material according to our clients," says Marie Lam, country manager of employment agency Adecco Group Malaysia. Seventy per cent of job seekers registered with the company come from public universities.
Lam says they generally find it hard to communicate, have poor computer skills, are unable to interact with colleagues and people from other races, fail to display team spirit and face difficulties in adapting to the job market.
Puteri Umno head Noraini Ahmad, whose movement represents Bumiputera women aged 35 and below, is familiar with the problem.
She receives a steady stream of resumes from unemployed women, especially from rural areas, who are graduates of public universities.
"There is still no proper and timely system of collecting data on the number of graduates required in each sector and the number produced. This makes job matching very difficult."
Another complaint against public universities is that they tend to produce too many graduates in the "wrong" fields of study.
An often-cited example is the continuing surplus of arts and humanities graduates flooding a market sorely in need of IT personnel.
But merely tweaking the numbers produced in each field of study to better suit market requirements, which is what many universities have been doing in the past several years, may not work.
As Lam points out, although IT is one sector where there is no shortage of jobs, 60 per cent of unemployed fresh graduates her company deals with are diploma or degree holders in IT.
"The IT jobs are there, but the graduates are not up to the mark. Unemployment among these graduates is high due to a massive oversupply of people who do not meet the IT industry's requirements for technical skills, competence and knowledge of a specific IT platform."
It's the quality of graduates, in other words, that is the main culprit.
It's easy to blame the universities for this, but ultimately, they are only dealing with the products of the country's schools.
"The students reflect the quality of our school education system, so if there is any weakness, that is the first area we should look at," says Shamsuddin.
"I am not belittling our straight-A students, but the question is, are they equally strong in the soft skills?"
UKM's Salleh says universities, including his, are trying their best to improve courses to better meet the country's labour requirements. But the importance of employability, he adds, is a personal responsibility. Undergraduates themselves need to be aware of it.
Salleh says that one of the best things that has happened in UKM and other public universities in recent years is the greater emphasis on meritocracy in the intake of undergraduates.
"I notice that the quality of our undergraduates has improved because of this. We still have many students who come in with a very weak foundation in the soft skills.
"But with meritocracy, we seem to be getting more competitive and well-rounded people, who I feel will not face problems getting a job," he adds.
So, like it or not, developing more competition and greater meritocracy in the education system appears to be the only way to ensure that Malaysia produces graduates who are truly employable.