STEM jobs in high demand
Lim Siew May 
STEM pervades every facet of our lives, and our more digitally progressive world requires more of such talent to fuel the advancement

SCIENCE, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) pervade every facet of our lives, and our more digitally progressive world requires more of such talent to fuel the advancement.

The Academy of Sciences Malaysia estimates that one million people are required by 2020 to be in the science and technology fields. This includes 500,000 in support and services comprising technicians, talent in the vocational field, science officers, nurses as well as information and communications technology (ICT) personnel; 470,000 implementers like engineers, doctors and architects as well as well as scientists, technologists and applied scientists; in addition to 30,000 in research.

The bottom line is that there are vast opportunities for workers with in-demand STEM-related skill sets and prospective workers in the process of acquiring such knowledge and skill sets.


ABC skillsets

Feon Ang, LinkedIn’s Asia-Pacific vice-president of talent and learning solutions, notes that companies today are on the lookout for candidates who possess Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Cloud computing (ABC) skillsets, or a combination of these skills.

Companies are looking for candidates with Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Cloud Computing skill sets, or a combination of these skills, says Ang

She cites a report from the recent Digital Workforce of The Future by LinkedIn, which revealed that a combination of skills encompassing Big Data, data analytics and web development registered a 21% growth in demand. “In Malaysia, the top five in-demand digital skills are big data, software and user testing, mobile development, Cloud computing and software engineering management,” says Ang.


Technical skill gap

Alma Othman, general manager of Adecco Malaysia, points out that due to the fast changing nature of technology, roles that are technology-related are the easiest to transit into for people who want to switch to a STEM-related career.

STEM-related compensation package is dependent on the company that’s hiring, the value that the person can bring and the negotiation that takes place between the two, says Alma

“Those who are willing to learn new skills to fill the technical skills gap will fare better, as some soft skills are transferable, such as project management and communication skills. Plus, there are already many existing massive open online course (MOOC) sites like Udemy and Coursera that people can learn from, making it easier for them to get training,” she says.

In contrast, which STEM-related careers are the hardest to break into?

Adecco Malaysia specialises more on engineering and IT roles, says Alma who points out that in general all four sectors require specialised skills or qualifications to break into. If an employee does transition into a STEM role, he will need to invest more time and money for certification, so he can move up the career ladder.

“IT and engineering roles do pay relatively well in general. How well the pay is also dependent on the company that’s hiring, the value that the person can bring and the negotiation which takes place between the two,” she says.


Higher salaries

According to the 2017 Salary Report, IT/computer consulting jobs (IT, science, engineering and technical) for senior managers in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Putrajaya command the highest average maximum monthly salary of around RM18,000.

Meanwhile, IT/computer workers in consumer and fast-moving consumer goods industries earn the highest average minimum salary of RM14,000 within the same region. Engineering jobs in East Malaysia’s semiconductor/wafer fabrication field will fetch you the highest average minimum and maximum monthly salary of RM17,000 and RM27,500 respectively.

Alma agrees that STEM-related fields will increase in demand. Candidates who successfully switch to the sectors will subsequently enjoy better pay and greater career options due to a talent shortage in STEM.

Making the career switch may necessitate you to start from scratch. Based on her observation, an employer’s ideal candidate would likely be an experienced hire, due to various factors such as not having time and money to train career-switchers.

“Candidates will have to go through a steep learning curve picking up the skills needed to succeed in the STEM roles. They will find it hard to switch from a non-STEM background. This costs time, money, and effort, and the candidate may feel demotivated,” says Alma.

“Starting afresh, sometimes with a lower pay, may impact their income, which is an important consideration for those with heavier financial responsibilities.”

However, she believes that it is worth a shot if the candidate has the motivation and resources to switch to a STEM career. “There is a possibility that the pay gap can be closed when he gains more experience and knowledge in the STEM role,” she says.


Traditional sectors need digital skills

Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s Ang is more hopeful. She notes that more and more traditional industries today have increased their proportion of digital talent out of the total amount of talent they hire.

“The agriculture industry, for example, has the fastest growth of digital talent hires, with 13.7% of overall hires. So, when a candidate within a traditionally non-STEM industry like agriculture switches to a more STEM-related one like IT services, it doesn’t mean the candidate would struggle. More often than not, they would have already possess some sort of STEM-related skills from their previous job,” she says.

She believes that switching is only a matter of upskilling and development. “Fortunately for Malaysia, and the Asia-Pacific as a whole, 87.6% of ABC talent are home-grown. This indicates that companies are willing to inculcate relevant digital skills to its employees regardless of education and professional backgrounds,” she says.

Among all the STEM jobs, Alma is optimistic there is a high demand for IT professionals as businesses are moving rapidly into the digital age. “Budget 2018 allocates more funds into the education [STEM] and digital economy sectors, so we know that demand will grow in the future, if it’s not already happening now,” she says.

Under Budget 2018, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced an allocation of RM250 mil to set up a STEM centre that trains teachers to become STEM specialists and improve computer science modules such as coding programmes.

Ang further adds that with STEM being a priority area for Malaysia, initiatives like the Asean Data Analytics eXchange (ADAX) and Malaysia Digital Hub are established to cultivate the digital skills required to spur the digital economy forward.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 261.