Talent: Vital Building Block for Malaysia’s Digital Future

In my previous article Outsmarting Smart Robots, I said that there is an increasing consensus that jobs are changing in drastic ways and getting our current and future workforce ready for such changes is critical.

More of the same will no longer be enough. This message has been recently affirmed by LinkedIn, the global professionals platform, with the release of its 2019 Emerging Jobs in Malaysia Report. The study, which analysed millions of unique, user-input job titles from the last five years, noted that the top five emerging jobs were linked to technology. And just as important, the report highlighted the demand for ‘hybrid’ skills.

Developing a rounded skill set, which rests on digital competency, needs to be balanced with other core soft skills such as problem solving, communication, creativity, and a measure of what has been called EQ (emotional quotient).

Our strategy to become a stand out nation in the global digital world is powered by five building blocks. Implementing much of this strategy lies within the remit of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), a government-owned agency under the Ministry of Communications & Multimedia (KKMM). The KKMM Minister, YB Gobind Singh Deo, first outlined these building blocks towards the end of last year.

These building blocks, which are important drivers of a strong online ecosystem, are: high-quality infrastructure at affordable prices; tech talent development; increased cybersecurity vigilance; development of platforms and enablers such as Digital ID, open data and so on; and the legislation, policies and industry structures to support the growth of the digital economy.

While the building blocks are intended to produce two key outcomes – widespread digital adoption, and the enhanced growth of digital entrepreneurship throughout the nation – building the right talent is the fuel to power our trajectory into the our future.

Deepening the Momentum

When we look at the top five emerging roles highlighted in the LinkedIn report (data scientist; full stack engineer; drive test Engineer; user experience designer; and content writer), we note that the easiest to teach at scale are the technical skills. While advanced digital skills are usually top of mind – such as coding, data analytics, and so forth – the basics are just as important for all of us to adapt to the workplace of the future.

A vital aspect of our nationwide initiatives is inclusivity. Everyone has an opportunity in Malaysia’s digital future. The basic digital skills required to perform daily tasks online need to be shared across underserved communities, the disabled and the elderly.

Our digital future will increasingly come into the hands of the next generation. MDEC has been actively complementing the Ministry of Education’s initiatives to integrate and embed computational thinking, computer science including coding into the national school syllabus. We are also work closely with a premier group of local universities to strengthen tertiary-level Computer Science curricula and teaching.

Meanwhile, the collaborative approach amplifies another public-private-academia movement, MyDigitalMaker, to transform Malaysian youth from digital users to producers in the digital economy. Digital skills both feed and complement the hybrid skill portfolio by developing problem solving and creativity among our young generation. More than half million students are actively participating in digital making activities such as coding, robotics, data analytics and more.

Transformative support to help teachers includes learning tools and further training through an Educator network. Essentially, short courses and certification programmes on programming/coding, embedded systems, digital making and more offered by #mydigitalmaker partners and university-based teacher-training hubs during weekends and school holidays to support educator readiness. To-date more than 30,000 teachers have become part of this network.

MDEC’s efforts to prepare our future workforce includes working with 12 universities to act as local training hubs for teachers who need to get trained in various digital tools. MDEC provides a computational thinking specialist to train the universities and accredit them to be training centres for the teachers. Some of them are also acting as Digital Maker Hubs, which gives students another option outside of their schools to go and explore and learn about various digital tools. There are currently 48 Digital Maker Hubs around the country, some are hosted by private companies and non-governmental organisations.

MDEC and industry partners further develop students with especial digital innovation and creative potential to help them into tertiary studies with Premier Digital Tech Universities and Preferred Digital Tech Polytechnics. The Premier Digital Tech Institutions comprise local universities and polytechnics with high graduate employability in the digital technology sectors and which have the potential to becoming top regional institutions. To date. MDEC and the Ministry of Education have jointly endorsed 8 Premier Digital Tech Universities and 5 Preferred Digital Tech Polytechnics.

Learning as a Way of Life

Before I sign off, I would like to again stress the importance of remaining relevant in the world we have entered. We must together address the 4th Industrial Revolution as an opportunity to enrich our lives through evolving ourselves and our skills by constantly learning.

One of the results of rapidly evolving digital age is that most of us will have different jobs through our lives. Very few will remain in the job for which they were formally trained. I believe that every day is a day for learning something new: An essential sign that we are producing the right talent for a standout digital future in the world will be a mindset that includes adaptability and one that is tuned always to learning.

Sumitra Nair is the Vice President for Talent & Digital Entrepreneurship in MDEC

Outsmarting Smart Robots

How can humans outsmart robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI)? This is the million-dollar question that one group of experts the world over is scrambling to answer, while another group races to build machines with near-human capabilities.

One among many predictions is by McKinsey Global Institute, which sees millions of jobs being be wiped out. Others take on a more optimistic view: humans will survive the 4th industrial revolution. Accenture suggests – that if we pick the best from each – humans and machines will work together in harmony, A recent Harvard University study shows that doctors are able to diagnose cancer with greater accuracy when working with AI.

Nevertheless, there is a consensus that jobs are changing in drastic ways and getting our current and future workforce ready for such changes is critical. More of the same will no longer be enough.

Skills to complement AI

As machines become more intelligent, three types of complementary skills are expected to become more important for people to develop.

The easiest to teach at scale are technical skills: Both basic and advanced technical skills are equally important. While advanced digital skills have received much attention – such as coding, data analytics, etc. – basic digital skills will be just as critical for the current workforce to survive the changing workplace.

Learning how to use digital productivity tools, doing online research and transacting are a few of the basic skills many still struggle with, especially in underserved communities like urban poor, rural, disabled and elderly communities. Earlier this year, Sundar Pichai, Google CEO affirmed this when talking about Google’s move to train people with basic digital skills.

Coming back to advanced technical skills, these will be most critical for the next generation of workforce.  Digital natives will need to know how to harness and complement their intelligent-robotic counterparts. A McKinsey survey of 3000 business leaders suggests that demand for technical skills is expected to grow the most compared to the 3 types of skills mentioned in this article, hence the emphasis on STEM, computational thinking, computer science and coding in educational institutions must continue, be it in schools or universities.

Aligned to this, MDEC is supporting the Ministry of Education’s efforts to integrate computational thinking, computer science including coding into the national school syllabus. We are also work closely with a premier group of local universities to strengthen tertiary-level Computer Science curricula and teaching.

The second set of essential skills for the future workforce are higher cognitive skills, or higher order thinking skills. These include creativity, critical thinking, decision making, complex information processing. Basic cognitive skills such as, literacy and numeracy which have been a strong focus point for industrial era education systems, are increasingly becoming hygiene factors, i.e. important for basic survival, but do not give us any edge over AI machines. Higher cognitive skills require deep learning experiences, for example, guiding a student to be aware and understand his/her own thought process. This kind of deep learning is challenging to deploy at scale, and will require significant changes across the education delivery system.

The third set of skills are unique to human beings, i.e. social and emotional skills. These are expected to be the hardest for AI to replace. Inherent but less emphasised skills like adaptability, interpersonal communication, negotiation, empathy, leadership, managing people and relationships, entrepreneurship and innovation, teaching and training people are critical if we are to remain relevant in the future workplace. These skills are often neglected in most conventional education systems which tend to focus more on academic excellence.

Never stop learning

As technology and roles in the workplace evolve, forecasts suggest that most people will have 4-5 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime, hence re-skilling will become extremely important. Formal education may prepare us for our first careers. Thereafter, life-long learning via self-directed, informal learning, and on-the-job training will be key to facing rapidly evolving jobs of the future.  Employers can no longer expect graduates or for that matter, any new employee to come fully-equipped for the role. Instead, they must be prepared to invest in training and re-training staff. From a policy perspective, we must find ways to encourage the culture of life-long learning; and support employers, especially SMEs to provide on-the-job training. In Singapore, for example, all citizens aged 25 and above receive periodic credits of SGD500 to pursue training courses for in-demand skills. Here in Malaysia, similar efforts could be prioritised for those at risk of being displaced by AI.

Education is for life, not just to make a living

Given rapid changes and uncertainty in the type of skills/jobs that will be in demand, experts suggest that universities should prepare students for life, emphasising cross-curricular learning instead of over-specialisation for specific jobs. There is also consensus that real-world experiences will be highly valued compared to pure classroom learning, hence, tertiary institutions and employers must work together to structure robust internship or apprenticeship programmes. Given these scenarios, universities need to re-think and re-focus on the fundamentals of education, while regulatory and policy measures are needed to encourage employers to offer internships or apprenticeships. With regards to the latter, the UK government’s apprenticeship funding model is interesting to study.

There’s obviously a lot that needs to be done to prepare our current and next generation for a future with AI. Tremendous political will and excellent coordination between the powers-that-be will be required to move this massive mountain in the right direction. But we must play our part: Simple acts like taking an online course, and encouraging life-long learning among our employees, colleagues, and loved ones. As the saying goes, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” So, go ahead and secure your seat in the AI world.

Sumitra Nair is the Vice President for Talent & Digital Entrepreneurship in MDEC.

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