Motormouth: Indonesia’s Automotive Future Needs Training (Op-Ed)

Let’s start the new year with some good news.

The product of the hard work by vocational school students in Solo has earned them some well-deserved recognition.

Using the shell of an old SUV, six students at the Surakarta Vocational School (SMK2) have assembled the body and engine to complete a new car they have branded the Kiat Esemka (the name is taken from the pronunciation of SMK and the company that helped them), which consists of 80 percent local parts.

Building a car is no easy task. It requires in-depth knowledge and very specific skills if the end result is to be a vehicle that is functional and comfortable — and that is exactly what these young students have done with the help of Kiat Motor, a large automotive sales and repair shop in Solo.

This is not the first vehicle to have been assembled by a group of vocational school students in Indonesia, but with Solo Mayor Joko Widodo, as well as his deputy, F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo, happily getting behind the wheel for a test drive, it has spurred a great amount of interest from politicians and the public.

Though the car has yet to be declared road worthy by the Transportation Ministry’s land transportation office, a number of politicians in the past week have said that they would be willing (or at least willing to allow their staff) to get around in a student-built Esemka.

Putting the public show of support for the Esemka aside, this little story also has put the spotlight on an area of education that is often otherwise left in the dark — vocational and technical training.

No Skills, No Growth

Vocational education provides students, or young people in general, with job-specific skills that are necessary in every corner of a community and that help fuel economic growth. Without skilled workers, the prospects for future growth in the manufacturing sector is grim.

In the past year, Indonesia’s automotive industry has provided much news for the business pages with multiple international carmakers declaring plans to invest heavily to expand their local production capability.

And this is despite poor infrastructure, the lack of an existing and appropriately skilled work force and the challenges they will all surely face when navigating through a venal bureaucratic system.

It might be premature and probably a little idealistic to put into writing, but it appears as if there is a great opportunity here for the car industry in Indonesia (which is primarily an assembly industry) to claim a bigger stake in — and become a greater beneficiary of — one of the world’s largest and most profitable industries. But if the country is going to seize the moment, the government must think about a long term strategy and take action now. One way to do that is to ensure that vocational schools are well-funded, accessible and efficient.

Workers Needed

If Indonesia is to make the most of the circumstance, then there needs to be a skilled workforce ready and willing to go to work in expanded factories. And that will only happen if those in positions of power and influence can commit to doing whatever is required to strengthen the country’s vocational education system.

The students of SMK2 should be proud of having put their classroom theories into practice, while also earning the respect of  officials like House Speaker Marzuki Ali and Industry Minister M.S. Hidayat, both of whom enthused about the Esemka last week.

Let’s hope that these same students will have a strong and fruitful automotive industry to become a part of in the future.

Published on January 8, 2012 in Jakarta Globe newspaper


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