For many years, the EE industry has experienced a shortage of various engineering types and the problem is only exacerbated in new markets such as AI and 5G. Southeast Asia is no different. Hoping to stem the tide, test & measurement companies are going to the frontlines to support the next generation of engineers.

In a talent shortage survey commissioned by ManpowerGroup, of the almost 40,000 employers surveyed worldwide, 45% are struggling to fill roles, with engineers being one of the most difficult to find.

Companies today are being pushed even harder to attract, develop and retrain talent. If they are to succeed in the midst of a skills revolution, having an effective talent strategy is an imperative.

In the 1970s and 80s Malaysia was consigned to the realms of labour-intensive and high-volume production. Multinational corporations (MNCs) were attracted to the nation through favourable trade policies and low-cost labour, not unlike Vietnam in recent years.

Things have markedly changed for Malaysia, no more so than in the state of Penang which is recognised as the ‘Silicon Valley of the East’.

But was Penang’s success predestined?

That depends if you believe the story of how Hewlett-Packard became established in the region.

Shidah Ahmad

Shidah Ahmad

In an interview with EE Times Asia, Shidah Ahmad, Vice-president & General Manager of Order Fulfilment and Global Supply Chain at Keysight, recounts the urban legend.

Penang, a blueprint for success

Allegedly, “companies in the 1970s were looking for offshore manufacturing and one of the founders at Hewlett-Packard was having dinner at a restaurant in Penang. While fiddling with his reverse Polish Hewlett-Packard calculator, a waitress asked if she could take a look. Not only did she speak in fluent English, but she instantly knew how to operate the calculator”.

Ahmad goes on to explain that “the founders felt that if talent like this waitress could exist in Penang, then this is the place to start offshore manufacturing.”

While a great story, Ahmad, who is also the General Manager of Keysight’s operations in Malaysia, does explain that the government has played a key role in developing talent and attracting MNCs to Penang.

Keysight Technologies, with its Hewlett-Packard and Agilent legacy, was one of the first MNCs in Penang. With nearly 50 years of history in the region, Ahmad is keen to stress that they are invested in trying to develop the nation to a higher skill.

Maintaining an equitable relationship with the local Government has really enabled Penang to flourish, and in turn, Keysight. Through collaborations with a number of Government agencies, such as TalentCorp and MDEC, Keysight have made sure that they have the right local talent.

“From primary school to secondary school and through to University, we are working in collaboration with the Government to bring the talent up to a higher value”, Ahmad added.

Believing that interest in STEM starts before University, there is an array of educational programs that are suitable for younger students. These range from after school science experiments, introducing girls to STEM and young innovator programmes which expose students to engineering disciplines.

Making circuit board

With a desire to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among the young talent in Penang and Malaysia, Keysight worked with the Government to spearhead the ‘Penang Science Cluster’. Through the support of Keysight and other industry volunteers, PSC is able to support over 200 schools through workshops, makers sessions and annual fairs, to educate and inspire students.

Keysight’s involvement in education continues up to and including University. Here, Keysight sit on the advisory board for curriculum to play their part in ensuring students are ‘industry ready’ once they graduate.

Preparing for the workplace

To continue operations and grow the business in Southeast Asia, National Instruments (NI) has taken a unique approach to ensuring new engineers are up to the challenge.

“NI has the ELP program, which takes in young talent from Universities and other tertiary institutions from across Southeast Asia” said Goh YH, ASEAN & ANZ Regional Sales Manager at National Instruments, in an interview with EE Times Asia.

ELP stands for Engineering Leadership Program and it has proven vital in exposing young engineers to the fundamentals of engineering over a one-year period. The graduates are taken through their paces in a technical, professional, and leadership skills development program to prepare them for the workplace.

Goh added, “this program started in the 1990s when NI was expanding globally, and we realised that in order to service our customers globally we need to have very knowledgeable engineers.”

In the last couple of decades, the electrical and electronics industry has seen massive developments in technologies, time to market has shortened and complexity has increased.

NI has found great success with the ELP program and Goh was keen to point out that many of NI’s senior executives have been through the program, including the current President and Chief Operating Officer, Eric Starkloff.

Whilst the ELP program has been instrumental in training young engineers across Southeast Asia, NI has recently taken the approach of partnering with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). USM is Malaysia’s premier research university and together with NI, they have announced the first NI Embedded System Lab at USM.

Besides its sponsorship of the lab’s software and hardware, NI is working to encourage close collaboration between USM lecturers, USM researchers and NI engineers to promote training opportunities and guest lectures.

This is part of NI’s approach to ensure students and young engineers become highly sought-after in the engineering industries.

Driving education & research in Vietnam

“Our senior leadership recently visited the Vietnamese Government and found that there was a lot of desire and determination to attract more and more MNCs” said Benny Xu, Tektronix Marketing Director for Greater China and ASEAN, in an interview with EE Times Asia.

For many, Vietnam has become the ‘star performer’ or the ‘up-and-comer’ of electronics manufacturing in Southeast Asia.

MNCs are targeting Vietnam as a new manufacturing hub in light of their low wages and superfluous labour. Despite having one of the fastest growing economies in the world and enjoying 6.79% GDP Growth in Q1 of this year, Vietnam still wants more.

Xu believes that Vietnam is looking to make the most of the recent influx in foreign direct investment from MNCs so that they can introduce a design element to the economy, and this creates opportunities in the education sector.

“The opportunities for Tektronix in Vietnam primarily lie around upgrading their teaching labs and teaching systems” he said.

For many years, Singapore and Malaysia have been at the leading edge of research in Southeast Asia with a great deal of funding going into adding value to their electrical and electronics industries.

Xu argues that we’re starting to see this happen in Vietnam and Tektronix is at the forefront to expedite adoption.

“It’s not about being a box provider and just giving them a scope. We’re providing a total solution which encourages a lot of projects and upgrades their curriculum in the teaching labs”

Several years ago, Tektronix introduced the TekSmartLab, this is a smart lab that connects all instruments in a lab so that the professors can better manage their equipment. In addition to this, Tektronix has been collaborating with professors for code and curriculum development to build a curriculum around basic electronics design and advanced system design.

Tektronix views itself as an enabler of electronic design. With the strength of ASEAN region still firmly in electronic manufacturing. this is not likely to change overnight. However, Xu is buoyed by the projected ramp-up in high-end electronic design activities in countries such as Vietnam and the research opportunities this will bring.