Talent: Bridging the shortage of local tech talent
19 Apr 2021
When the pandemic hit, there was a spike in layoffs throughout the country as companies struggled to make ends meet with the enforced non-activity and the sudden cessation of income. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the aviation industry.
This is why local budget airline AirAsia Bhd decided to use its tech training centre, Redbeat Academy, to offer its employees tech-related programmes and short courses to help them cultivate skills that would be relevant in a post-pandemic world.
Dr Ram Gopal, Redbeat Academy’s director of strategy and innovation, says: “During the Movement Control Order (MCO) 1.0, we received about 1,200 applications [for programmes in the academy] from our employees of different backgrounds including cabin crew, ground staff and even baggage handlers.”
Ram is quick to point out, however, that the academy was not set up because of the pandemic; the latter simply accelerated the former’s progress. Its goal is to address a problem not only within AirAsia but throughout Malaysia as a whole. “From our discussions with government agencies, we know Malaysia has a huge gap in terms of digital talent. We have 1.5 million foreign digital workers. We have a population of only about 25 million and, of that, an employable market of about 15 million. So, about 10% of that is tech talent, which is imported.”
“[Redbeat Academy offers what] no other training centre offers … We’re giving you a pipeline into your future career.” -Ram
This means the number of vacancies available in the tech industry is huge. “And when you talk about moving out of the B40 (bottom 40% of the population), even the entry level technology positions are above the B40 household income range.”
How is this significant? “As our country moves towards a high-income economy, it’s the medium and mean monthly incomes that we need to change. Which means the more individuals we have employed in these higher-paying positions, the better the economy is.”
And tech, as Ram points out, is one of the areas that are doing well, even with the MCO and related restrictions. “So, the more students we can pop out, the more we are helping the economy.”
The academy is working with other companies to ensure that all its graduates have a job waiting, whether within AirAsia or outside. “We make sure they end up with a proper job. So, it has a direct impact on the economy.”
Although the academy is fairly new, Ram is already proud of its success stories. For instance, there is Christine Low, who is part of the company’s sales and distribution commercial team. She decided to enrol in the academy’s data analytics programme to reskill herself.
As part of her job, she has to deal with travel agencies and corporates and develop strategies to improve the workflow, Low tells Digital Edge. “Before this, we never analysed in-depth whatever happened on the job, what was going to happen and what to do next.”
Coming from a non-tech background, she found the course challenging. “Everything taught was foreign to me but the team of trainers was helpful.”
“We were able to streamline our workflow without compromising on the quality of our work.” – Low
After the course, she found she had a broader perspective on how to use data in her job and implemented some of the new tactics she had learnt, such as minimising data overload, analysing, visualising and offering new ways to improve and enhance the projects in her department. Low was also able to create and propose new projects based on her enhanced skill sets.
For instance, she started using Structured Query Language (SQL), a tool she picked up from the course, to carry out checks and balances of AirAsia’s travel partner (travel agent) accounts. “I worked with our team to process and clean the data and create a canvas of this data that is relevant to our company’s requirements.
“With that, we are able to analyse, visualise and make projections on each of our travel partner’s purchase behaviours and also do real-time monitoring of the fund use more effectively,” she says.
Low adds that her newfound skills and knowledge helped her incorporate processes that saved time and money and reduced or even eliminated human error on mundane tasks. “We were able to streamline our workflow without compromising on the quality of our work.”
What makes it special?
Although Redbeat Academy hopes to help with the national digital talent gap, it was set up to address an in-house problem, says Ram. “We started our digital transformation more than two years ago. We’ve always had this plan to go from being just an airline to being a tech company that happens to fly planes.”
But when it started to look for the right tech talent, the company ran into a wall almost immediately. “It was really, really tough. So, we decided to train our talent from within. We have so many talented AllStars (the word AirAsia uses to refer to its employees). We formed Redbeat Academy to give our AllStars the opportunity to upskill and reskill themselves.”
It received 1,200 applications from employees of all backgrounds. “We included a number of different tech paths. Christine, for instance, did data. But we also have a software, cybersecurity, digital marketing and, of course, UX (user experience) design path.”
Where universities offer four-year degree courses, Redbeat Academy offers equivalent credentials in six months. “You want to reskill yourself suddenly because of the MCO but you don’t have four years to do it. We want to make things a lot more reachable for everyone.”
What’s the catch? There is none, according to Ram. “We had to make sure that our curriculum was exactly what was required. If you went to university, how much of what you studied are you using today? I’ve often been told that it’s just 10% to 20%. That’s a terrible ROI (return on investment). We want that number to be 100%. And to do that, we keep adapting our curriculum and we pick trainers with years of experience in the industry.”
Given the short duration, the curriculum emphasises practicality and provides students with an immersive learning environment.
Ram says it is important to have trainers who are working on the ground so that whatever they impart is relevant in today’s context. “Our software track is taught almost entirely by non-full-time trainers; they are software engineers with decades of experience. And they teach in a language that they use for their own software development every day. That’s like learning music from Bon Jovi.”
The academy also offers students a Capstone programme, which is on-the-job training that teaches learners to apply their knowledge in real-life situations. “For example, our digital marketing track just finished their Capstone and all of them presented their work to Tony [Fernandes, AirAsia Group Bhd CEO]; he was really impressed. Because these guys, until the point they joined Redbeat Academy, had never done any digital marketing.
“And, now, Tony is telling our head of digital marketing at AirAsia Digital, ‘Okay, they’re great. Take them on your team. You don’t need to hire from outside.’ That’s the sort of thing we offer that no other training centre offers. Basically, it’s not just knowledge, but we’re giving you a pipeline into your future career.”
Is this just an elaborate recruitment strategy for AirAsia? Ram laughs. “Yes, but then it’s the world’s longest job interview because it takes six months.”
But he hastens to add that it is not just AirAsia that benefits from the talents produced. “We have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with [employment search service provider] WOBB Jobs. We collaborate with them to make an end-to-end solution for individuals who are looking for a job but are not qualified for it. Give us six months, and we will make you qualified.”
Ram says the academy wants to reach out to as many people as possible and aims to produce at least 100,000 local digital talents. It will serve five segments — AirAsia staff; corporations and small and medium enterprises; government agencies; universities; and individuals — with its skills development programmes and career coaching services.
An advantage that the academy enjoys, he says, is its ability to scale quickly. “We have a degree of scalability that other training providers do not have. If you suddenly come in and dump 5,000 students on us, rest assured, we will get the required training capacity. We can expand very rapidly to manage the increase and, as we use cloud infrastructure to host all the tools, this won’t be a problem.”
A matter of partnerships
Redbeat Academy itself is supported by Airasia Digital (previously Redbeat Ventures) and Google, according to its website. Its other partners vary from government agencies to think tanks, universities and big corporations.
Last October, Redbeat Academy formed a partnership with the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), an independent non-profit technology think tank under the Prime Minister’s Department, to reskill a pool of talent in software engineering and hi-tech projects (such as blockchain and data).
The academy also signed a partnership agreement with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Malaya and Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management, awarding a micro-credential to RedBeat Academy courses and acknowledging them as part of the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning. APEL provides experiential learning opportunities at tertiary institutions to people who have work experience but no academic qualifications.
Ram is perhaps proudest, however, of the academy’s partnership with the prestigious Imperial College of London. “Even public universities in the country do not have joint programmes with Imperial College. So, that’s huge.”
Later this year, it will be launching its Betabuild Labs programme, an incubator for technopreneurs. It was initially offered by Google to help enterprises incubate new digital businesses with employees.
One thing the AirAsia group prides itself on is affordability. How about the courses offered by Redbeat Academy? Ram says the company will strive to see that a broad section of the population will be able to afford them.
“First, all these courses are HRDF-claimable. So, if you’re already with an organisation, your company’s [Human Resources Development Fund] will cover it. We’re now in the process of getting it Penjana-applicable as well.” Penjana is the government’s RM35 billion short-term economic recovery plan.
Ram says the company is also thinking of bringing these courses to those who have only O-level qualifications and do not have a few thousand ringgit to spare. “We’re introducing easy payments. And, as you may know, the AirAsia group is going to have a virtual bank. So, we will be giving out loans for these courses through that as well.
“The other initiative that we could introduce in the future is a student loan, which would work in the same way that the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) works for public universities, where you study first and pay while you work.”
The academy has also introduced short courses that can be done in a few weeks, for under RM1,000. “Sometimes, you’re a software engineer and the language you’re working in is no longer relevant. Maybe you’re using PHP, when everyone is using React JS. No problem, we have short courses for that. One week, and your boss can stop being angry with you.”
Source: The Edge Markets