Sofea Azahar was quoted by Malaysiakini.

Gajendra Jeya Kumar, 25 August 2022

When Firdaus, who wants to be referred to by his first name only, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism Management, he never thought it would be something he would regret.

Now, years later, Firdaus often thinks to himself that he should not have spent too much to attain tertiary education.

“I paid RM18,000 for my tertiary education. To be honest, I feel a little bit regretful because it is hard for me to find a job that is related to my course,” he told Malaysiakini.

After university, Firdaus found work as an intern in the sales department of a company. As he found difficulty finding a position related to his field, he continued in the company.

“If my performance is great, then they will absorb me as permanent staff but if not, I would probably have to resort to working as a Grab driver.

“With the current fare that Grab drivers get, it would surely not be worth it for me,” he said.

Firdaus is among the thousands of young Malaysians who are struggling due to underemployment.

Underemployment is a situation when workers with high skills or qualifications are employed in relatively lower-skilled and low-wage jobs. 

‘A loss to the nation’

While Firdaus’ position in sales may open a new career path for him, others who find themselves working in the retail or food and beverage industries, for example, may find themselves in an even more precarious position.

One of them is a Bachelor of Chemistry graduate who took to TikTok recently to share how grateful she is to have found a job working at a KFC outlet.

Her video, which received 4.7 million views and 548,500 likes, caught the attention of Muda vice-president Dr Thanussha Francis Xavier, who said this showed that the future is bleak for many young Malaysians.

And yet, Thanussha said, the government has not come up with a concrete solution to address the problem.

“While effort has been put to mitigate unemployment in Malaysia, very little has been done to address underemployment.

“Qualified individuals have been forced to take up jobs below their skills and accept lower pay. However, this will not be reflected in the unemployment statistics as these individuals technically have a job,” she said.

Thanussha pointed out that young people and their families were getting into debt to ensure they get tertiary education – despite nothing much waiting for them at the other end.

“This is a loss to our nation as these capable and intelligent individuals are unable to contribute and put their skills towards national development,” she added.

Engineer-to-population ratio too low

The inability to secure a decent job after tertiary education has led to 72.1 percent of SPM leavers saying that they are not keen to pursue further studies after secondary school, according to a Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) survey done in 2019.

This translates to about 390,000 SPM candidates joining the workforce right out of secondary school.

Besides believing tertiary education will not help them secure better jobs, the school leavers with SPM said they are reluctant to further their studies because they prefer to work in the gig economy or become social media influencers, where they can potentially earn more than university graduates.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said poor remuneration was among the reasons why young people are becoming less interested in becoming engineers.

Expressing concern over the matter, Ismail Sabri said Malaysia’s ratio of engineers to the population is much lower than developed countries like Germany, adding this could impede national development.

“Salaries and remuneration in the Civil Service Engineering scheme need to be reviewed, taking into account factors such as engineering expertise and cost of living,” he said at the Board of Engineers Malaysia’s (BEM) 50th-anniversary dinner on Aug 20.

Malaysia’s engineer to population ratio is 1:174, while the ratio is 1:82 in Germany.

‘No high-skilled jobs where I live’

Besides low remuneration, graduates are also finding it difficult to find high-skilled jobs in their areas.

Another Chemistry graduate, Nina, who only wanted to be referred to by her first name, said she found herself underemployed because she couldn’t find a suitable job where she lives – a symptom of imbalanced development in the country.

Specialising in forensic analysis, Nina said she took up a job as a sales assistant in a retail pharmacy, after months of searching for work at the end of her internship.

“My initial plan was to work with the government as a chemist but the first few months of job-hunting was very hard as none of the companies I applied to responded, which pushed me to apply to companies near my house (in Kelantan).

“However, it is harder to be employed in companies over there as you need a ‘strong cable’ to get in, which pushed me to take up any job that is related to my field,” she said.

Still, Nina said, she faced pressure from family and friends to quit her job because it did not commensurate with her qualifications.

“They said that the company is illogical and was assigning me additional tasks. Even though I am fine with the additional scopes, I have realised how crazy the working world is,” she said.

Lagging in creating high-skilled jobs

Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia senior researcher for economic, trade and regional integration researcher Sofea Azahar said youth underemployment in Malaysia is indicative of how we are lagging behind other countries in creating high-skilled jobs for thousands of people graduating from universities yearly.

She added that it also shows how Malaysian talent may not have the skills required by the industry.

“At present, the country’s workforce is still largely populated by semi-skilled workers with most of them in services and sales,” Sofea told Malaysiakini.

She said young people are more prone to labour market risks, including underemployment because they lack experience and network as new entrants.

“Some educational institutions have also not provided the soft and technical skills that are required by the industry, leading to mismatches.

“As such, this leads to them taking up any jobs in the market, even those that are below their qualification levels,” Sofea said.

TVET and occupational skills training

To help ease underemployment, she said, there should be more emphasis on technical and vocational education and training (TVET), on top of offering more occupational skills and hands-on experience to graduates.

“The government can also boost private-public sector partnerships through incentives to hire, retain and train young employees to ensure the youth are more competent for skilled jobs,” Sofea added.

On that note, Muda’s Thanussha said the education system could also use a revamp to focus on hard skills required by industry.

“The education system in Malaysia needs to be overhauled to match the current demands and prepare people for careers relevant in the future.

“While other nations are teaching students about coding, we are still stuck on mundane subjects such as Pendidikan Moral.

“We need to face facts that no one learns about morality and character development by memorising definitions of values,” Thanussha added.

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