To ensure that future demands for high-quality tech talent are met, it is imperative that today’s formal education integrates the latest digital tools and technology skills into the curriculum. Given the increasingly high costs of continuing higher education, skills-based study such as those found in vocational secondary schools (Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan or SMKs) offers a new pool of candidates for technical careers in the technology sector. However, SMKs in Indonesia have long faced challenges in producing employable youths1. Furthermore, not all of Indonesia’s SMKs offer majors related to the digital economy, such as software engineering, machine learning or human computer interaction.
SMK education in Indonesia is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Culture under the Directorate of Vocational Education. In recent years, following the implementation of the Presidential Instruction No. 9 of 2016 on the Revitalization of SMKs, the Indonesian government has launched several programs to improve SMKs and strengthen the graduates’ readiness to enter the workforce. Building on the past programs, the latest 2022 Center of Excellence (Pusat Keunggulan) program based on Minister of Education and Culture Decree No. 17 of 2021 seeks to establish collaborations between SMKs and the private sector, which involve: joint curriculum development, project/industry-based learning, lecturers from the business world and industry, practical fieldwork, competency certification for graduates, teacher training by industry, commitment by industry to absorb SMK graduates, scholarships or commitment to work by the working world for SMK students. Despite the encouraging development, participation in the program is by application, as it is meant to showcase selected SMKs as a reference center for improving the quality and performance of other vocational schools. This creates an opportunity gap whereby not all students enrolled in SMKs are able to benefit from industry linkages.
Furthermore, fluency in English is a crucial skill for students seeking to pursue a career in the technology sector, but this is currently not supported by the curriculum. For instance, according to the Directorate General of Primary and Secondary Education of the Minister of Education and Culture Regulation No. 7 of 2018 on the SMK Curriculum Structure, the curriculum structure for software engineering, a key major in digital economy, includes only 352 hours for English language and other foreign languages over the course of three years2. Since English is the main language of the technology sector, more focus and time should be devoted to its practical application at the SMK level so that students can be more prepared before entering the workforce.
Efforts to produce digital talent through the formal education system require the close collaboration of educators, industry, as well as governments at the national and regional levels, both of whom play a role in the development and delivery of vocational education and training3. The expansion of digital economy majors to other SMKs across the country and involving industry in developing the curriculums can help learners to gain skills that are important to technology sector employers. Equalizing access to SMKs that benefit from the Center of Excellence program, or offering SMKs with digital economy majors access to the same facilities, is important since it gives students access to the quality teaching and equipment standards they need in order to succeed in the technology sector. Meanwhile, students’ English skills must also not be overlooked as it is a vital skill needed to be able to keep up with educational or training resources - many of which are provided only in the English language. Having practitioners as teachers can ensure that students are receiving the most relevant language skills that are required in the workplace. Lastly, incentivizing the technology sector to hire SMK graduates through fiscal and non-fiscal incentives can boost the rate of employment among SMK graduates, whose high unemployment rates remain a concern to policymakers.
For many entrepreneurs, the decision to turn into innovations depends on the ease to adopt technology, trained workforces, and multiple sources of finance. Yet, navigating the complex regulation is a major challenge for most lay business people. To expedite the economic recovery post-pandemic recession, the stakeholders in the ecosystem are urged to formulate the right policy to simplify such challenges.