Zubaidah Nazeer – Straits Times
At the back of this vocational school, in a workshop the size of two tennis courts, sits the pride of the school — a four-seater airplane called Jabiru, made by the students and ready soon for its maiden test flight.
This school isn’t the only one churning out feats of engineering. From planes to cars, Indonesia’s vocational schools — of which there are 6,800 around the country — have been transformed in recent years from places where rejects go, to places where students emerge with skills to power a booming economy.
Along with this new success is a rising sense of nationalism and pride over what boys and girls as young as 16 can create.
“People used to think technical schools are a place for rejects from academic courses but now they are beginning to see how wrong that is and how much talent these students have,” said SMK Negeri 29 principal Dedy Dwitagam.
SMK — short for Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan or vocational schools — came under the spotlight recently when Joko Widodo, the mayor of Solo in Central Java, who is now making a bid for the seat of Jakarta governor, said he would use the car produced by students in an SMK in his city as his official car.
SMKs are open to students who have finished six years of primary and three years of secondary school. They play a role similar to that of Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education, or ITE.
Most of the SMK students are from low-income families and cannot afford to study overseas.
Graduates entering the labor force today will work until about 2050, so the skills they have will help determine Indonesia’s long-term competitiveness.
Indeed, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said the lack of skilled labor in the medium term is the biggest challenge to Indonesia’s economic development. Official data shows that Indonesia’s labour force numbered about 120 million in 2010 but only a third were in the formal and skilled sector.
Its report also noted that only 62 percent of vocational school teachers meet current qualification standards, a figure deemed low, and that good teachers with industry experience are rare. Government consultations with industry indicate widespread concern about the lack of relevance of some vocational school courses to industry requirements.
ADB has been working with the government since the 1980s. Now, it is hoping to help raise standards with an ‘Indonesia Vocational Education Strengthening (Invest)’ project. The long-term objective is to alleviate poverty.
But it was only in recent years, following a concerted rebranding of SMKs to attract and inspire students, that the scheme yielded noticeable results.
ADB’s education specialist, Sutarum Wiryono, said total loans or grants of about $650 million, including the ongoing Invest project worth $80 million, have been given.
“The majority of these students come from low-income families. The education provide necessary skills for the graduates either to work as employees in industries or to create their own business or employment,” Sutarum said.
SMKs come up with their own projects, assessed half-yearly by ADB.
Each SMK specializes in one or two sectors. The largest number of students, or 46 percent, are in technology and industry schools, followed by business and management schools at 43 percent, tourism at 5 percent, and agriculture at 2.4 percent, followed by arts and handicraft.
Four in 10 students are girls.
Joko Sutrisno, a former Education Ministry director-general in charge of SMK development, told The Straits Times earlier this year that nearly seven in 10 graduates land jobs within three months of graduation.
Most of the remainder pursue higher studies or become entrepreneurs.
In the five years that he has led the department, his campaign, “SMK Bisa, Indonesia Bisa,” which roughly translates to “SMK Can Do It, Indonesia Can Do It,” is paying off.
The number of SMK students has swelled from 3.3 million in 2008, and is expected to reach 5.4 million by the end of this year.
Dedy of SMK29 in Jakarta says his SMK focuses on aviation and engineering.
To assemble the plane, the school sought out experts from Garuda and Lion Air, the Air Force and the Aerosport Federation of Indonesia to advise teachers and students.
Teachers are sent to regular training sessions with these partners, something Dedy considers crucial as some teachers have clocked 30 years in their profession and need regular skills upgrading.
“This way, teachers get to know the latest standards and students get a chance to work with industry folks they may be applying to and may be able to join the industry straightaway once they graduate,” Dedy said.
SMK Negeri 4, a school in Cilincing, located in an industrial town in north Jakarta, partners with automobile and machine-intensive manufacturing companies in its area.
The school specializes in technology and design, building motorcycles and automobiles. Students are encouraged to participate in global competitions, and have won some.
SMK principals say that while the stigma of their schools being second-rate cannot be stripped overnight, that perception is changing.
“Students are also thinking differently. They have more self-confidence,” said Wahidin Ganef, principal of SMK Negeri 4. “Where before, they go through the SMK courses to just pass, now they dream big — they want to be entrepreneurs or work overseas.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times