Wanted: Smart grads with dirty hands

Vocational education has been touted as a way to push Indonesia up the skills chain and provide jobs. But it’s not working out that way.

Wanted: Smart grads with dirty hands            AFP Photo/Waltrud Grubitzsch/ZB/DPA Picture-Alliance

Indonesia is facing a perfect storm on the education front, roaring in from all compass points. According to a lengthy 2018 report from Australia’s well-respected Lowy Institute: “Indonesia’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an internationally competitive system.” 

This outcome has reflected inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures and poor management, but has most fundamentally been a matter of politics and power. Not just in schools, but also universities, where just 16 make Asia’s top 400 campuses on the international Quacquarelli Symonds ranking. Neighboring Malaysia, with a population of around 32 million, or 12 percent of Indonesia’s, has 27 on the list. There are around 3,000 tertiary institutions in Indonesia; just 122 are state-run. Most are teaching, not research. Wealthy students head for labs and lecture rooms overseas – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization cites around 42,000 students. The world’s fourth-largest country has yet to win a Nobel Prize in any discipline. 

But the real crisis is in vocational education. From numerous speeches and statements, it’s clear that President Joko Widodo, along with the nation’s more thoughtful politicians and academics, fears the economy will slump if it

‘Future governments will have to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and automation will creep into every occupation, from bricklayer to teacher.’

can’t rapidly train enough youngsters to match demand for high-level skills. In this dystopia, Indonesia won’t come within a country mile of meeting the upbeat forecasts being delivered by silver-tongue international financiers urging investment in the republic. The figures they spray are impressive: World Bank statistics show a growth rate in 2017 of 5 percent, way above Singapore’s 3.62 percent and Australia’s 1.96 percent. 

The Pollyannas chorus, with an expanding middle class hungry for new goods and services, and with almost half the population under 30, is that Indonesia is on track to be the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2030. Realistic? Only if these youngsters can fill the positions being posted by worker-famished factories; however, few bosses are seeking barrow-pushers and component sorters who need time off to eat and rest. 

This century’s uncomplaining round-the- clock laborers are the restless robots – they’re already marching into modern manufacturing centers to keep their products jumping off the shelves ahead of competitors. The work will be for those with the know-how to design, develop, assemble, adapt and repair the high- tech equipment displacing routine tasks. This challenge is international. As Australian economists Andrew Charlton and Jim Chalmers have written: “Future governments will have to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and automation will creep into every occupation, from bricklayer to teacher. We, in turn, will need to prepare for a working life that even a few years ago was unthinkable.” 

President Joko says 58 million skilled workers will be needed in Indonesia within the next 12 years. He should know a bit about this, having been a carpenter and run a furniture factory in Solo, Central Java Province, before carving out a career in politics. He’s been badgering his increasingly fretful officials to conjure up solutions. They’re colliding with barriers so stoutly built that the bureaucrats are risking reputations by looking abroad for ideas at a time when national pride tinged with xenophobia is a powerful driver of policy. 

So far, the seekers have scoured Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the United States, Taiwan, China, New Zealand and Australia for ideas. Educators in Australia are hoping to help (for a fee) by using the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. After almost six years of stop-start discussions, this free trade deal is reportedly close to settlement. It’s believed to include clauses allowing Australian universities to open branch campuses in Indonesia – but Indonesia needs and wants vocational colleges. 

It sounds simple: first clean up the schools so they deliver keen, well-taught kids. Sort out the budget. Copy an overseas curriculum with proven results. Download the steps to success. Implement. Get everyone on the bus. Accelerate. Then comes the jolt. Culture, politics and distrust gather to roll out the concrete barrel roadblocks and barbed wire. Border control points drop booms. Progress shudders to a halt. Which is where Indonesia is currently stranded. 

Will the post-millennials prosper? 

Ambitious parents often pray their children will get a university education. If the pops and moms earned by heaving and sweating, they don’t want their children to tread the same track. Some men let a fingernail grow long. Explanations go from fashion fad to showing they’re above manual work. Few want a technical certificate on the guest room wall because the neighbors wouldn’t be impressed. What’s needed is a cap and gown photo, the image to snare a desk in an air-conditioned office. 

But not now. The 30 percent of Indonesian high school students who go to university favor the so-called soft options such as social sciences and religious studies, where jobs are scarce. Instead, the work and money is for people wearing hard hats and carrying high-tech tool kits, according to Professor Ainun Na’im, secretary general of Indonesia’s Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education. His department is separate from the Ministry of Education, which handles schools, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which supervises Islamic teaching institutions. Having three ministries with competing interests leads to overlapping responsibilities and much confusion, say public servants in these areas.

The US-educated former university rector is getting earfuls from an increasingly vexed President Joko and his higher education minister, Muhammad Nasir. “We don’t find students from wealthy families taking up vocational education,” Ainun says. “The mind-set of Indonesians is against learning practical skills. This is something we have to change.” But how? Shift thinking and expectations, perhaps, as old ways no longer suit. This is the advice given by his department, warning students and parents of the onrushing tsunami of workplace change. In the new economic climate, tasks will be washed away as technology surges ahead of plodding bureaucrats and their cumbersome regulations. 

Handling the quandary also needs big bucks: do public servants recommend their masters spend on technical college workshop gear to teach trades, only to find that the factories have retooled with faster and fancier machines? Policy planning is further tangled because business and bureaucracy have different backgrounds and worldviews. Should schools form partnerships with industry so the

youngsters can learn on the job? In Surabaya, the capital of East Java Province, the US heavy earth-moving corporation Caterpillar trains its own mechanics, but their skills may not fit a miner using Japanese Komatsu bulldozers. 

Business tycoon Sandiaga Uno, a vice presidential candidate in the 2019 presidential election, told the “A Dangerous Drift?” foreign policy conference in Jakarta last October about his experience commissioning a power station in Sumatra. “We selected a Chinese contractor because the price was good,” he said. “The plant was built within two years with imported staff. Most impressive, but it’s a decision I regret. We should have used Indonesians. When maintenance started, we found all manuals were written in Chinese, so had to go back to them for help.” Foreign workers are a hot issue heading into the April presidential poll. Opponents of the government claim that 10 million illegal laborers are working on the government’s massive nationwide infrastructure projects. President Joko reportedly responded that there are only 23,000 Chinese on short-term contracts: “Those workers install turbines. They build smelters. I’ve checked it myself. That’s because we are not ready yet … to do those jobs.” 

At the household level, casual Indonesian contractors are often multiskilled, one person seamlessly moving from carpentry to metal fabrication to power reticulation – all without certification. But not elsewhere. In advanced economies, even floor cleaners must have passed a training course. This is for health and safety reasons, as moppers sometimes use toxic chemicals. Over the top? No, the risks are real. In January 2018, more than 70 people were injured when a mezzanine at the Indonesia Stock Exchange building in Jakarta collapsed into the lobby. Poor maintenance and wrong construction materials were alleged to have been responsible. 

However, there’s a downside. Ainun probably had a close shave when studying in Philadelphia many years ago, as he uses barbers to show how regulations lead to higher costs and a defiance of authority. “If I want a haircut overseas, I pay $20 (about Rp 290,000) or more because the hairdresser has a diploma and the shop is licensed. In Indonesia, I can find someone competent but unqualified. They’ll cut my hair for the equivalent of a dollar. So who’ll use the expensive shop?” he says. “OK, we make it illegal. But in this country we’ll never get a situation where such rules can be effectively policed.” 

A Westerner who cables his new den with a couple of friends won’t get to play with his vices without a written guarantee, signed by an authorized expert, that the handymen didn’t get their wires crossed. It’s the same with other trades, leading to the old joke that parents wanting their offspring to get rich should steer them toward medicine and fixing perforated bowels, or plumbing and unblocking toilets. 

The cost of taking a practical or academic course at an Indonesian state college depends on the quality of the institution; charges at the lower end are much the same. About 90,000 talented kids from poor families get $43-a-month government scholarships for tuition fees and $26 for living expenses. 

Indonesia has tried offering student loans similar to those available in Britain, the United States and Australasia, but now the banks won’t participate. They used to hold graduates’ original certificates as collateral but found few repaid the loans. “That’s because the borrowers photocopied the documents and used these to get work,” said Patdono Suwignjo, director general for science, technology and higher education. The veteran educator will retire this year, so feels less constrained to be diplomatic. His favorite words are “neglect” when referring to past governments’ interest in vocational education, and “stupid” regarding regulations. Later he added the word “distrust.” 

Unlike many of his colleagues, Patdono knows about technology close-up from his days as a vocational lecturer, though not close enough. “I can tell you how to weld and what equipment settings to apply and filaments to use,” he said. “But if I handle a torch, the metal and flame tip will get stuck.” He also has a droll sense of humor on the subject: “Do the math: If we continue building vocational colleges at the present rate of three a year, we might meet the demand in 1,350 years.” 

Indonesia’s Constitution requires a massive 20 percent of the state budget to be allocated to education. Yet the government spends less than $1,200 per primary student. That’s around 14 percent of spending by members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Patdono blamed the gap on the education component in the budget being bundled with other items and sent to the regions to disburse. He estimates the actual proportion delivered to education is only around 8 percent. 

Nine years of schooling are mandatory for children in Indonesia and are supposed to be free.

If we continue building vocational colleges at the present rate of three a year, we might meet the demand in 1,350 years.

However, school administrations thrust their hands deep into parents’ pockets with a range of charges, from building new classrooms to funding teachers’ retirements, making school retention tough for low-income parents. Anger about the education system is the second- largest issue (after land certificates) among the 10,000 complaints received annually by Indonesia’s National Ombudsman office, led by Amzulian Rifai. “We’re not like the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission),” he says. “My powers are limited to mediation and recommending departments change their practices. Most do – some don’t.” 

Indonesia has 170,000 state primary schools and 40,000 junior high schools. There are also thousands of private and religious schools, many of which are boarding schools. Those who complete junior high, usually by age 15, who opted to stay in the system, have the choice of an academic high school or a vocational school. The most talented vocational school graduates wanting further qualifications head off to university, a polytechnic or diploma awarding college. These are confined to large Indonesian cities so students have to leave home, adding to their schooling costs. As they progress theory expands and practice shrinks. Although apprenticeships haven’t taken root in Indonesia, they still operate in parts of Europe, the Anglosphere, Turkey, India and Pakistan, so could be adapted to suit Indonesia. 

The current entrance ratio favors academic high schools above vocational schools by seven to three. The higher education ministry wants these figures reversed, but there’s one tough question: what will graduates get in their wallets? “Consider salary structures in Pertamina (the state-owned energy company),” Patdono says. “They recruit a top polytechnic student with a diploma and an ordinary university graduate with a degree. When both get permanency after two years, the academically trained employee will earn Rp 12 million ($825) a month and the other Rp 8.5 million ($585). That’s even if they’re doing the same job. The company ranks a four-year diploma below a basic degree. They should be equal. This would encourage bright kids to take on practical work, but I can’t get the Ministry for State-Owned Enterprises to agree.”

Graham 3: AFP Photo/Donal Husni/NurPhotoAnother difficulty is settling educators and employers on the same page headed “Job Descriptions.” Is a health worker a nurse if they’re the only professional in a clinic? Is a bank clerk an economic adviser if she or he suggests deposit accounts to customers? “After two years of discussion we couldn’t get agreement,” says Patdono, who adds that the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry “doesn’t trust the government.” 

The state-owned enterprises are part of the reason. There are 118 of them, and 800 subsidiaries. Although socialism is on the nose in Indonesia because it carries a whiff of communism, which is officially banned, the number of government-controlled businesses is growing, to the annoyance of private industry. 

Entrepreneurs reckon this swimming pool is so tilted by constantly changing regulations, their team has no water to compete in the race for contracts. 

Unsurprisingly, Indonesia ranks 72 in the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business survey of 190 economies. Then there are subsidies for inefficient operators delivering price-sensitive essentials. In mid-2018, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said Pertamina had been handed $1.8 billion to keep gasoline prices stable when global oil costs surged. 

The state electricity company Perusahaan Listrik Negara is another recipient of government largesse. It has a monopoly on power distribution and most generators. Those privately owned struggle to stay solvent when dealing with a behemoth buyer. An exasperated Patdono threw up his hands: “Where else in the world is there such a crazy system?” 

To get around the bog of job descriptions, Indonesia is toying with using the Australia and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations searchable list. However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics warns that it isn’t exhaustive and some titles are still contested. In a bid to boost teaching quality, Patdono’s section shut down 243 diploma mills in 2016, and then hit what he calls the “practical reality of Indonesian culture.” Politicians or their friends owned many of the shonky institutions. “Pressure was applied to reverse the rulings,” Patdono says. “We resisted, but now try to make them more professional. That means lifting teaching abilities. Good buildings are the easy part. Getting quality staff is far more difficult.” 

Here’s another zone where culture conspires to trip the unwary. The idea of lifelong learning is an alien notion. Students are expected to make an unbroken journey from school to higher education – then rarely grace a campus after graduating. Few take what Americans call a “gap year” and Australasians refer to as “OE” (overseas experience), to get their hands dirty and minds enlarged before settling down to serious learning. The result is that Indonesian teaching halls are filled with a one-age cohort. Academics returning to classrooms to update qualifications fear their social standing will take a tumble. 

Ainun, the higher education secretary general, says he recognizes the need to expand education catchments and help students who don’t fit the standard mold. “We’ll be introducing a multi-entry, multi-exit policy taken from Taiwan to build some flexibility into the system,” he says. Then came a list of “musts.” “We also stress that health and safety practices must be totally accepted. We must improve the quality of vocational teachers,” he said. “Fifty percent must come from industry. If they’re reluctant to get retrained, they’ll be fired. Our priorities are manufacturing, medicine, tourism, the digital economy, energy and agribusiness. We must get business on side. The need is pressing.” 

The Cirebon reality 

Discussions about a vocational education crisis in an armchair circle of senior government officials atop a shiny Jakarta high- rise feel divorced from reality. The pie chart figures are unpalatable but abstract. Down in the concrete classrooms, the concerns are tangible. 

Cirebon is a port city about 140 miles east of Jakarta. A polytechnic school is being built there but won’t be ready until 2020. SMK1 is the biggest vocational high school there, with 2,500 students. Only one in four students are female. There are six departments: construction, electrics, electronics, automotive, computing and mechanical engineering. It was selected at random for this essay and visited with no prior notice. 

Here the deficiencies were stark, with students learning on lathes installed almost 40 years ago. There were no computer- aided design controls, which are standard in industry. The carpentry workshop had no nail guns or a gang-nail press that are common in timber construction. One small panel in a glass-top display represented solar energy. The lecturer said battery costs deterred development. He knew nothing about the technology commonplace elsewhere where solar-powered households sell excess electricity to the utility during the day, then repurchase at night. Students were not wearing eye or ear protection, steel-capped boots or other safety gear that is mandatory on most worksites. Fire extinguishers and first-aid kits were well hidden. 

Retired staff members have been pulled back into service because replacements can’t be found. “Frustrated? Absolutely,” said Abdul Ghofir, head of the school’s mechanical engineering department. “We were promised new equipment, but it never arrived. Imagine how our graduates feel when their bosses tell them to handle equipment and tools they’ve never used? How can we train them properly?” 

Mila Merliyanti, 17, the lone female in a workshop of boisterous boys, had an answer to her lecturer’s question: “I’m starting to learn mechanics here because I want to study further in Japan. It’s my mother’s idea, but I think it will lead to a better job.” Cirebon’s SMK1 has a longstanding agreement with a Japanese corporate that might be worth copying. The Japan Indonesia Association for Economic Cooperation runs what it calls human resource development through an apprenticeship program. Students are selected from vocational schools, sent to Japan and placed within companies for work experience and further training, for up to three years. 

On their return they get jobs with Japanese companies based in Indonesia, having learned new skills and work practices that suit their employers. The scheme has been operating since 2005 and has taken in about 10,000 trainees. This is a program that other countries might consider offering as they probe the Indonesian vocational education system for employee opportunities. First they’ll need to understand the issues. Higher education ministry staff, students and lecturers will undoubtedly all oblige.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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