PSDC’s New CEO Not Allowing Any Resting on Any Laurels

By Ooi Tze Xiong

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Tan Eng Tong brings to PSDC a wealth of technological experience from the Silicon Valley and the U.K. Photo by: PSDC.

ON MARCH 1, Tan Eng Tong became the new chief executive officer of the Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC). A Penangite with a wealth of technological experience in the Silicon Valley and the U.K., Tan’s appointment comes just when Penang’s Golden Jubilee of Industrialisation celebrations are in full swing.

Penang Monthly sits down with the newly-minted CEO to discuss his vision for PSDC.

Q: You have held senior positions in product strategy and development at big names such as Hewlett Packard and Seagate, as well as serving as the COO at Putra Business School and as VP Strategic Management at SilTerra Malaysia. Coming from years in the corporate world, how has transitioning into the public sector been like?

Tan Eng Tong: A common misconception is that PSDC is a public sector agency when in fact it isn’t. It is a non-profit, member-run organisation. The management council itself comprises industry leaders from the private sector, both from Penang and the rest of the country.

I believe I was appointed because of my extensive experience in the electronics manufacturing industry; I spearheaded the creation of an industrial association and subsequently, industry standards. It was a steep learning curve to be sure; gathering consensus from hundreds of different companies was a challenge. Structurally, PSDC is similar.

Read also: PSDC Celebrates Penang’s Golden Jubilee of Industrialisation

Our stakeholders are from the hundreds of manufacturers in Penang. Finding common ground in workforce transformation is no small feat, especially when each stakeholder brings to the table their own set of requirements and processes.

Adding to the complication are stakeholders who, among themselves, are also market competitors. Thus, in-depth knowledge of the manufacturing industry is fundamental. This is where I come in, having not only first-hand experience in manufacturing and product development, but also in marketing strategy.

Q: You inherit in your new position a number of challenges that are perennial – and unique – to Penang, including increasing competition for human resource. How is PSDC strategising to transform these drawbacks into capitalising opportunities?

TET: In engineering, you are taught that to solve a problem, you must first figure out its root cause. From my observations, there is a confluence of factors at play here. Chief among these is the influx of companies flocking to Penang, while existing manufacturers are simultaneously upscaling and expanding operations. Naturally, the supply of skills will be hard-pressed to keep up with the demand.

Compounding matters further, engineering graduates aren’t guaranteed to enter the profession. This conundrum is rather well-known; news and stories of engineering graduates, upon graduation, entering other fields of work instead is a common tale. University courses aren’t in sync with the latest in industry requirements either, and this has had a detrimental impact on the talent pipeline. It becomes incumbent on the private sector to retrain fresh hires.

There is only so much PSDC is able to remedy; we have to focus on our core capabilities. Firstly, we provide an alternative pathway for those who cannot afford to go to universities. Secondly, we provide customised courses to narrow the skills gap and to address the upskilling needs of the various industries here.

Q: How is PSDC to promote interest in technical vocations among the young, and to stop them from being further drawn into other sectors?

TET: Interest in engineering among youths is waning, this much is obvious. Back in the day, parents used to encourage their children to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer; these were the most sought-after occupations. Engineering isn’t as appealing now to the young, not when the allure of quick cash under the influence of social media grows ever stronger.

Even societal pressures can have an impact. An interesting conversation I had with a Grab driver comes to mind. He and his peers left a local major manufacturer because they were already all “burnt out”. In my years in the Silicon Valley, I have worked with resilient professionals whose dedication and passion are unparalleled in their fields.

While Penang may be renowned as the Silicon Valley of the East, our industrial achievements have gained scant attention from the local population. For example, do you know that the optical sensors in your gaming mouse were developed right here in Penang? Or that Dexcom has innovated a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device to transmit glucose levels in near real-time to your smartphone? Most Penangites are unaware of these innovations happening in their own backyard. I believe more success stories of our local innovators are needed to inspire youths to take up engineering.

Photo by: PSDC.

Q: How is PSDC gearing up, along with stakeholders, in preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0), in aspects such as automation, Big Data and various other computing skills?

TET: Well, what does IR 4.0 mean to manufacturers, really? In a nutshell, production will become more efficient. Sooner or later, industries here will have to adapt one way or another, or risk lagging behind the competition. The onus is on each individual business to respond to such advancements.

On our part, PSDC is doing its utmost to prepare the industrial landscape, but firstly, a more detailed understanding of business models and production operations is essential. Only then can PSDC formulate outcome-based trainings, customised to support workforce transformation within a specific organisation.

In addition, as international borders reopen, PSDC will also facilitate more opportunities for networking and exchange of ideas through innovation-themed conferences and seminars. Such events are to complement PSDC’s main competence in retraining and upskilling the existing workforce.

Q: How will PSDC steer its member companies and academia in building technical competencies and soft skills in the existing workforce?

TET: It is human nature to be inspired by success stories and role models. Therefore, to steer our stakeholders, PSDC must stand out through our capabilities and build upon decades of achievements in workforce upskilling and transformation. My vision is to elevate PSDC as the institute of choice, the crème de la crème, for workforce transformation in Penang.

Read also: PSDC: A Technical Skills Institute of Excellence

Besides our stakeholders, we are also working with agencies like Penang STEM to reignite interest in innovation among youths. We are planning to approach this by curating stories about innovators who have contributed to Penang’s industrial success.

Q: Drawing from your collective experience at MNCs, can you provide some examples of sought-after skills, which at present, may still be nascent in Penang or perhaps, not fully developed?

TET: For the past 50 years, Penang’s manufacturing sector has progressed from low-cost, labour-intensive industries to high-tech innovation and production. But Penang cannot rest on its laurels, not when competition from our neighbours is intensifying.

Consider this: While Penang started industrialising in the 1970s, Vietnam was concurrently embroiled in decades of war. Its journey to industrialisation only began much later. Now its electronics industry is rapidly growing, attracting giants like Samsung and Intel.  Penang’s industries need to quickly move up the value chain in the areas of upstream design and development. Strategic, critical thinking skills will be paramount, as much as the management of technology and innovation.

Q: What plans do you have to take PSDC to the next level?

TET: Closer collaboration with our stakeholders will be important. We need to have a better understanding of emerging trends and how industrial requirements are evolving in order to address their shortcomings and support their workforce transformation plans accordingly.

Addressing these skills gaps is plausible once the shortcomings are identified. For example, implementing Big Data in a factory may not be a problem, but training the workforce to respond and interpret the huge amounts of data into actionable solutions is more critical.

It is also high time to bring PSDC’s capabilities and offerings into the limelight. As it is, awareness of PSDC’s capabilities and what we actually do is lacking, let alone the home-grown innovations of Penang’s industries. It is time we change this.

Ooi Tze Xiong

a Xaverian, currently works at a multinational firm at Bayan Lepas. After years of sojourning in cities across Malaysia and Singapore, he eventually decided to call Penang home.