Nigel Carpenter is a serious guy involved in important work. He’s also getting a tad frustrated.
For the past three years, the Australians have been trying to repair Indonesia’s much troubled technical and vocational education training (TVET) system as it heads into an age of new needs.
In one lane is Australian expertise, in the other are labour upskilling orders delivered by President Joko Widodo, who seems to be forever pushing the pedal. Both sides seem to be heading in the same direction, though at different speeds.
It should be a clean run.
Instead, Carpenter has been bumping down a freeway strewn with potholes. Not all have been created by political indifference and public-service incompetence.
“One of the problems for Australians trying to get along with Indonesians is a failure to understand the culture and respond with flexibility,” Carpenter said.
“I turned up at one of the negotiations for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) to find all of the Indonesians outside talking in clusters. The Australians were gazing at empty chairs waiting for the discussions to start. They already had.”
The Chief Executive Officer for the Australian Non-Government Organisation Sustainable Skills has been urging Australian executives to rethink their attitudes towards their giant neighbour so they can work to modernise the Republic’s workforce.
“It’s been a frustrating experience meeting with Australian training providers,” he said. “Although we haven’t had rejections and there’s continued interest, we haven’t been able to have a business-planning meeting.”
Despite this underwhelming enthusiasm from his homeland colleagues, Carpenter has found interest in Java, though he won’t name names.
“To establish a training centre under Indonesian law, we need a local partner who must have a 32 percent share. Although this partner is involved in education, they are not a typical provider of education like a university or polytechnic.
“We don’t want an existing provider because we’ll inherit their culture and ways of doing things; we think that’s one of the issues which have caused problems for Australian training providers who’ve entered the Indonesian market.
“We want to establish a new business targeting a market which is not currently being met in Indonesia: High-quality TVET with strong industry links.
“We’ll need up to AUD1 million (Rp9.6 billion) to establish the first training centre and make its cash flow positive in about three to four years. Once we can demonstrate it’s working successfully, we will start expanding.
“The idea is to bring Australian trainers to train Indonesian trainers and develop the curricula. It’s not possible to transplant Australian TVET curricula into Indonesia, it won’t work. The needs are different.”
“This is a uniquely Indonesian plan based on the challenges and opportunities Indonesia presents. Assuming all goes well, we could start mid-2020.”
Sustainable Skills is a non-profit industry-backed agency. It had been working in Africa with mining companies and governments to develop workforce training systems, then turned to Indonesia when the President sounded the alarm about industry labour deficiencies.
The World Bank forecasts Indonesia’s economy will grow by 5.2 percent in 2020: “This projection is supported by private consumption, which is expected to continue to accelerate as inflation remains low and labour markets are strong.”
With almost half of the population under 30, the bank believes Indonesia is on track to be the world’s seventh largest economy by 2030.
But there’s a catch – who’s going to keep the economic engine humming when Widodo says 58 million skilled workers will be needed within 12 years? Without a pool of nimble-minded young women and men trained in the latest technologies, the expected and wanted surge will slump.
Work will be for those with the know-how to design, develop, assemble, adapt and repair the software and hardware, which is rapidly displacing routine tasks. This challenge is international.
As Australian economists Andrew Charlton and Jim Chalmers have written: “Future governments will have to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and automation will creep into every occupation, from bricklayer to teacher. We, in turn, will need to prepare for a working life that even a few years ago was unthinkable.”
Widodo has been badgering his officials to find solutions. They’re colliding with attitudes stoutly built in a pre-digital age. Some staffers are risking reputations by looking abroad for ideas, at a time when national pride tinged with xenophobia is a powerful driver of policy.
After almost ten years of stop-start discussions, the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement free trade deal is just awaiting parliamentary ratification in Indonesia.
It includes clauses allowing Australian universities to open branch campuses in the archipelago – but Indonesia wants the less prestigious but more necessary vocational colleges.
The Australians don’t have the field to themselves. German education providers have also been active in the Republic and are believed to have already signed agreements for hospitality training.
Adding to the complexities and Carpenter’s hassles is a shake-up in the new Indonesia Maju or Advanced Indonesian Cabinet, announced in October by the President.
The former Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education has been split, with higher education returning to the Ministry of Education and Culture.
This is headed by the Gojek transportation network entrepreneur, Nadiem Makarim, 34, who has no known experience of running a government bureaucracy – that’s likely to create difficulties and take time to settle roles and directions.
However, for Carpenter, the political changes may bring the breakthrough. The Harvard-educated minister should be better placed than his academic predecessors to understand the crisis facing the corporate world and think laterally to find solutions.
He also speaks the business-needs language that so far seems to bemuse securely tenured government workers. Carpenter is equally fluent.