‘Upskilling, reskilling of workers critical in feeding Malaysia’s growing industries’

Those seated at Warung Pokok Buluh in Kulim, Kedah, on Saturday morning were quite oblivious to a historic event that was about to take place some 8km away.

The conversations were mostly about their families and the run-up to the Melaka state election, as the patrons enjoyed nasi dagang and nasi kerabu – food typically associated with the East Coast.

None of them were aware of the ground-breaking ceremony for Austria Technologie & Systemtechnik’s (AT&S) new integrated circuit substrates manufacturing facility at the Kulim Hi-Technology Park.

At €1.7 billion (RM8.14 billion), the investment is, by far, the Austrian company’s largest ever, promising a bullish figure of 6,000 job opportunities once the facility is completed in 2024.

Present at the event were International Trade and Industry (MITI) Senior Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, and Austria’s ambassador to Malaysia, Andreas Launer.

Construction started this morning, and AT&S is already in the process of hiring the much-needed workforce. The company believes that demand in its products will spike, and that Kulim, rated the best destination over all the other locations it surveyed last year, is the “best place to be”.

AT&S isn’t alone at Kulim Hi-Technology Park. Many other global brands are also based there. While Kulim, located about an hour’s drive from Penang island and some 300km north of Kuala Lumpur may not enjoy the ‘glamour’ of Butterworth or Shah Alam, it has the potential of making a name for itself – if done right.

Interestingly, Kulim has a young workforce, evidenced by the many business outlets there.

These youths seem to have faith in the town they grew up in. Also, mobility is no longer an issue, given the highways and expressways that connect Kulim to other parts of the state, and nation.

The youths are also aware of the opportunities at Kulim Hi-Technology Park for several higher learning institutions, namely Politeknik Tuanku Sultanah Bahiyah, and University Kuala Lumpur-Malaysian Spanish Institute, located at the entrance of the Perdana Highway that leads to the industrial area.

Upskilling and reskilling of workers, however, remain a concern. The government had initiated several programmes, including the Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology Centre (Crest) – an industry-led collaborative platform for market-driven research and development, and talent development to enable Malaysia to become a high-income nation.

But it remains to be seen if these initiatives will fill the growing gap, or if these companies would inject cheaper foreign labour into their operations.

Some of those who attended the AT&S event on Saturday wondered if the company’s projections of creating 6,000 jobs in Kulim alone, could be achieved.

Professor Dr N. Suresh, a professor of economics from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences, admitted that one key area that is often overlooked, is manpower training.

“There must be sufficient training to feed these growing industries,” said Suresh, son of the late P.P. Narayanan, a renowned trade unionist, who was dubbed the ‘Father of Malaysian Workers’.

“Penang is the best place to do it. There’s the Penang Skills Development Centre, which is a good place to train engineers and technicians quickly, without compromising quality.

“The other states have been a little late in leveraging what Penang has done, but we are finally seeing some collaboration, so, better late than never,” he added.

However, training a skilled society cuts across ministries and government agencies.

MITI, the Education Ministry, Higher Education Ministry, Human Resources Ministry and the Youth and Sports Ministry, must join hands. These ministries must also take a good look at technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Over the decades, this had been the subject of numerous conversations, but results have been scant.

Suresh also spoke about the economic spill-over effects from industrial zones like Kulim.

“Economic spill-over effects are the additional benefits you get from putting something there. And often, the benefits come in the form that you haven’t fully accounted for.

“There are positives, and of course, all types of industrialisation will have negative spill-overs, like pollution and congestion. Leaving the negatives aside, you can clearly see that the Free Trade Zones in Penang had encouraged the (development of) Kulim Hi-Technology Park.

“The skilled workers were from Penang, who moved to Kulim in the initial stages. Of course, Kulim then started attracting its own skilled workers. That’s one clear spill-over effect.”

He said the earlier expansion of the Penang airport was another sign of the economic spill-over.

The planned Kulim International Airport had attracted excitement and criticism. While locals and real estate agents believe an airport would further drive the property prices in Kulim upwards, the Penang government, for one, would rather if the Penang International Airport received a makeover.

“I’m not sure having an airport in Kulim is the right thing to do, as you have to start from scratch,” said Suresh.

“It might make more sense to further expand the Penang airport, but the problem is, there isn’t much space. This is something the states have to work out.”