CEO Hari: PSDC Stays on Course on Penang’s Industrial Voyage

By Grace Sudita

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APPOINTED AT THE start of 2024 as CEO of Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC), Hari Narayanan has led a long career juggling both academia and industry for almost four decades.

After more than 30 years in Motorola, he decided to become an Adjunct Professor at Universiti Malaysia Pahang (2015–2019). He soon became Chairman of the Board of Governors for Universiti Sains Malaysia (2018–2020) alongside taking senior executive roles at Asia Pacific University (APU) for four years. He then returned to the industrial sector, serving in key positions at MIMOS Berhad and MPC before commencing his new role at PSDC.

Penang Monthly was grateful to meet up with Hari at the PSDC headquarters to chat about issues plaguing Penang/Malaysia and how PSDC aims to resolve them.

Grace Sudita: You had a long and fruitful career at Motorola before retiring to become an Adjunct Professor. What made you decide to come out of academia for the second time to join PSDC?

Hari Narayanan: This is the first time someone has asked me this! Really, if you look at my career, this goes back 30-plus years, directly after my PhD. I think the opportunity was given to me at my alma mater, University of Manchester, to become an academic staff member. I enjoyed that because you get all energised to do research and so forth. Even during that time, I think it was about three years into my academic career, that I really felt that I needed to go out to complement my academic experience with knowledge about the industry.

In fact, I had a job in the UK then but I did not take it up. But with family commitments, I remember walking into Motorola and getting the job immediately. I decided then to leave the UK to get into industry. I wasn’t a perfect fit, because my expertise was more mechanical engineering, but at the time, Motorola had a huge challenge in terms of developing their design capabilities.

You know, within nine months I got bored, but my boss read my body language and later asked if I would like to try a section manager position and run a small project. I had some challenges because I came from a hardcore mechanical engineering field and this was more of electronics, but I picked it up. I’ve always been blessed with having fantastic leaders, who gave me opportunities to move around, learn a lot of new things and so forth. It made me ready to become a managing director. I did what I could to grow the organisation, and when the retirement age came, I felt that it was time to pass the baton to my successor.

When APU got my resume, the founder, Datuk Parmjit Singh, spoke to me. He wanted some cultural change: top-level leadership, governance, structure, management, process and attitude changes. I was only partially successful because a culture change isn’t going to happen within a year or two, it takes years.

When I was the head of research and development, it was always about the speed of execution, product cycle time and how fast you go from ideation to launch. In universities, you hear “Oh, changing the curriculum takes years,” blah, blah, blah. So I suggested improving the process and got a new programme running within a year—I was partially successful. I left APU because I felt that I had a stronger successor in place and I did not want to be an impediment.

My intention of coming into PSDC was really to combine all my experiences, whether it’s industrial or academic, and help PSDC grow.

GS: What are your plans to spur PSDC onward? Based on what you picked up in Motorola, is there anything other than the speed of production that you want to implement in PSDC?

HN: In most organisations’ growth, success or failure depends on the leadership. If you don’t have the right leadership—the guide, the captain—you are really in trouble, yeah? So, what I learned is the ability to think far ahead, or at least a couple of steps ahead. This is something I hope to put into good practice at PSDC. I want to make sure that I hear people’s views, people’s ideologies, approaches and so forth. There’s the business aspect, the growth aspect, but I’m always keen to get the “people stuff” correct first.

At the same time, you know, I do have some aggressive goals for PSDC. I don’t think there was any competition or equivalent training centres, commercial or private or government, that provided the same services as PSDC. But that has changed. Today, other organisations are providing similar types of services. Rather than thinking that clients will come to us, we got to go out there! Not just sit down and ask, “What are your training needs?” But rather, “Hey, you know, what’s your strategy? What are your challenges?” You know, don’t prescribe but understand first. Those are some of the cultural shifts that I’m trying to encourage within PSDC.

We also run diploma certificates and TVET [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] programmes but we need to think differently in terms of bringing talents through the pipeline. People are not going to walk into PSDC because it has a reputation. We got to improve our marketing, our business development, the branding and communications.

Then, how do we continue to provide value and add value to our member companies? We will look at the portfolio or the programmes that we have—we have three TVET programmes at this point, but the need to improve or increase them will depend on the industry’s needs. We will continue to support the Penang state’s strategy of growing the GBS (Global Business Services).

The semiconductor industry is growing, albeit there being a lull over the last two years; but all indications are that it is picking up. Therefore, we have to make sure that we are proactively offering training or talent development solutions to this huge semiconductor footprint that we have in Penang. We are also strategically looking at what we need to do in terms of end-to-end semiconductor design and development. Within the Penang state, there is also a drive towards encouraging more integrated circuit (IC) design activities. I think PSDC can create the environment to develop talents in this area.

GS: There’s been a global trend where STEM is being integrated with TVET to maintain competitiveness. PSDC, in many ways, has already done that. But there’s a two-pronged concern going forward. People often perceive TVET as a “second-class” education. And secondly, according to your interview with Buletin Mutiara, you said that there’s a declining interest in STEM among SMK (Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan) students. How do you think this issue can be handled?

HN: Over the years, I have been working with government agencies on talent development, coming out with different initiatives—I still do that. The biggest problem is supply, right from primary school to secondary school. Now, we are just tweaking the need at the graduate level.

PSDC plays a key role in the Penang STEM board. We now have what I call a “draft blueprint” that identifies what we need to do to encourage kids at the primary school level to be more curious and more interested in STEM-related activities. And then, what do we need to do with the lower secondary school students to encourage them to get into the science stream? Once they’re in the science stream, what do we need to do to continue to encourage them so that they would go into a STEM-related, technology-related or TVET-related kind of programme?

Kudos to the Penang state because they already have things like the Tech Dome, Penang Science Cluster, Penang Math Platform… and what the blueprint is now saying is, “Hey, let’s look at aligning rather than overlapping. Let’s make sure that every one of them has a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) to measure. Let’s see the impact of a 300-pax programme and whether we have moved the needle.”

If you look at the last 12 years, there is a decline in the number of kids going to the science stream—around 30%. That’s significant. And here we are having exponential growth in the industries at the same time!

We got to really go to the root cause. Of course, PSDC plays a significant role in, I would say, containment, i.e. looking at school dropouts and SPM leavers who probably do not know there is an opportunity or a career in technical areas and so forth.

We should also widen our footprint nationwide—if talents are coming from other states, is there any way we can provide some level of incentive for them to stay in Penang? We need to have a more holistic view of these things.

Going back to your question about TVET being second class. Over the past decade, PSDC has been doing the German Dual Vocational Training (GDVT), where they complete at level four and enter the industry with the equivalent of a diploma. As long as the programmes that institutions develop are truly aligned to the industry’s needs, job opportunities will always be there. If you look at PSDC’s TVET graduates, they all get employed. That’s not a problem. But the perception that TVET graduates are second class is simply because it’s skills-based.

The other part is the low salary. Our experience is that most, if not all of them, have a successful career. For example, there’s a guy I met who did TVET in precision machining who got an offer at one of our member companies; within a short time, he has progressed to be a technical manager in the area.

The more we communicate TVET success stories, the less the public will view it with negativity.

GS: There is talk about the TVET syllabus being outdated, causing a serious mismatch between what is taught and what is required in the industry. How can you combat this critique?

HN: I wouldn’t be able to comment on what other institutions are doing or have done in TVET, but I think it’s important that the programmes offered are contemporary, staying relevant to industry needs.

I see TVET as 70% practical, 30% theory. So, if the pedagogy is right, I don’t see an issue of why these programmes are outdated. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it. One of the things that we tend to do is invest quite significantly in the infrastructure to make sure students are able to practice using machines and equipment.

GS: News coverage has often indicated a shortage of skilled workers. Do you think there would be a reduction in this if more women stepped into the role?

HN: It’s a great question. I do not have the statistics, but my answer is, yes.

The number of students in engineering over the years has gradually dropped. But the good news is that there are more women doing engineering and STEM-related topics. The problem is, once they are on board, they don’t stay long because of societal or cultural bias where women are expected to stop working and start a family once they are married.

I always use this analogy: When travelling on a highway at speed, women encounter more potholes than men. So, how can we reduce the potholes so that women can also travel at the speed men do?

I think TalentCorp also has certain initiatives to encourage women to return to work. If we could get a percentage of women back into work, it would be great.

The pandemic has also shown us that a job can be done productively remotely. Many companies are still providing the flexibility of working from home. This can be used as an incentive to attract talent. When you look at women returning to work, you should also look at the technological aspects. How can we make it easier for them to manage?

GS: With digital implementation and Artificial Intelligence (AI), how does PSDC remain committed to assuring employment for their graduates?

HN: Supporting the talent needs of the industry covers two aspects. First, should we create a kind of AI academy or a focused training centre? The second is having AI embedded in the programmes, using Generative AI to improve productivity.

GS: Do you have a timeline of when you would want to push it out?

HS: We should be able to implement it by the end of this year.

GS: What do you see as the future of Penang’s industry? Will there be a plateau/stagnation because of limited land, resources and workforce, or do you think these industries will continue to expand in Penang? And are we equipped for it?

HN: Working with member companies gives us some kind of preview on investments coming in. Penang continues to be an attractive destination for both foreign and domestic investments. I mean, if you look at Batu Kawan, seven years ago when I used to drive down the bridge I would see one or two companies. Seven years later, it is all filled up by factories!

I assume the state will do whatever it can to find additional land. But Penang has to be more selective in terms of the type of industries that you want to attract. Going forward with more digitalisation, automation and also more Generative AI, I think Penang should be looking at higher value-added activities. For example, design and development. Even if it’s manufacturing, we have to attract manufacturing that has sufficient automation, and that are less reliant on lower-skilled operators.

Based on a study by Penang Institute, for every engineer you would need three or four technicians going forward. PSDC can provide that.

I think Penang is attractive because after 50-odd years of foundational experience in specific areas, we have enough talent doing “musical chairs” at times. Talent is an issue but we have to start birthing new talent through long-term goal setting.

GS: Do you think we should be competing with other industrial parks like Kulim?

HN: I think the word is parochial. I think we have to look at the country as a whole. Penang cannot have everything, you know? I think it’s good that we have clusters in different parts of the country. Johor has a cluster, Klang Valley has a cluster, and even in East Malaysia, there are one or two fabrication companies. I do not believe in competition per se, within a country. We all have to aspire to do the best; our benchmark should be an international benchmark. So I think it’s good for the country to have all of these different clusters. And that would also help to develop talents.

GS: Thank you so much Dr. Hari for your time and insight.

Grace Sudita

is often referred to by her friends as “BBB” (British, Burmese and Balinese) because of her unique ethnic background. In her free time away from her internship at Penang Monthly, she spends time adding gazillions of films to her watch list on Letterboxd and yet rarely actually watches them.