Back in school, my dream was to coach-build cars. The premise was simple: I would restore any old car by adding the reliability and functionality of modern cars while keeping the old car’s identity and simplicity. The selling point? It’ll be cheaper than taking out 5-year loan on a new car that depreciates the moment you drive out of the showroom.
To achieve that dream, I needed to go to a vocational school to learn every craft in the book - from rebuilding an engine, to tanning leather. But unfortunately for me, the opportunity to do so never arrived - forcing me to push that dream aside in favour of a more achievable and sustainable career aspiration.
Looking back, I noticed the unerring hesitance from those around me in my pursuit for a vocational education. I was advised to pursue a Bachelor's degree, because it would guarantee a better paycheck, benefits and career prospects for my future. To them, vocational education is a second-class career path that leads to a dead-end job, as its gritty nature requires a lot of patience for (usually) little pay and merit.
This bias against vocational education is worrying. Malaysia already has a growing discrepancy between the supply and demand for skills because of our low number of technical school graduates. Of all our students, only 7 percent have gone into trade school - a figure that’s comparable to most declining economies. To put those figures into context, 81 percent of Germany’s students pursue a vocational education after high school.
The importance of skilled workers cannot be underestimated. A strong, skilled domestic labour force is a cornerstone to any self-sustaining economy as it creates an entrepreneurial culture that influences a wide-array of professions. It’s also essential to tackling youth unemployment - an issue that’s been increasingly troubling for us.
To some credit, our government has already expressed this importance and laid out their plans to revitalize our vocational schools. The plan is similar to Finland’s successful methods in rebuilding their vocational education - focusing on more corporate involvement and funding for TVET (technical and vocational education and training) schools, retraining and hiring more specialist teachers and a strong publicity campaign.
But unlike Finland, our plan doesn’t include a radical reform to our education system. Finland had altered their legislation to incorporate TVET into their educational curriculum, meaning that their technical graduates would be allowed to further their studies at university. And it’s proven to be fruitful - today, over 50 percent of Finnish youth apply for the programmes, making it more competitive than general academic education.
And, following their footsteps in reforming their education system can only be positive for us. It can address the negativity around vocational education by enabling our technical graduates to supplement their skills with an academic background. They’d be versatile and well versed in both the technical and professional aspects of their job - resulting in higher employability rates across a wide spectrum of careers. They’d also be able to venture into entrepreneurship - something the government is currently keen to invest in.
But obviously, changing the structure of our educational system and the negative perception of vocational education isn't an easy feat. But if Finland’s transformation is anything to go by, the merging of technical and academic schools may give us a way to solve our struggles in attracting students to vocational schools.
And perhaps, as a result of that, we could one day see bidding carpenters and brick layers turning into career professionals who restore our dilapidated heritage buildings.