While the country is headed towards significant change, including numerous reforms to boost its economy, an ongoing concern lies in its graduate unemployment, with Bank Negara Malaysia’s 2017 Annual Report recording an upward trend of 4.1% in 2016 . The report further highlighted that “the number of graduates in Malaysia increased by around 880,000 persons over the similar period, but with a corresponding high-skilled job creation of only 650,000 persons” – lending to the grim reality that about 230,000 graduates remain unemployed despite their qualifications.
Natasha and Natalia Bong with team mate Nur Azre Abdul Aziz from INTI named the National Champions of the L’Oreal Brandstorm 2018.
Coupled with this remains the dichotomy of expectations between graduates and employers, and while Jobstreet.com’s Fresh Graduate Report 2018 indicated a rise in employers’ positive perceptions, most still ranked graduates as average – suggesting the need for improvement among young professionals.
Higher education institutions, in their bid to address this expectations gap and improve the employability of graduates, have over the last few years engaged closely with employers. This has created opportunities for academia and industry to work together in developing curriculum that empower students with the competencies and experiences that prepare them for the workplace. Among these efforts is the rising popularity of industry-led competitions which test students with real life scenarios faced by businesses including digital marketing initiatives, coding and apps development, product innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Partnering with over 450 industry partners, INTI International University & Colleges (INTI) recognises the value of competitions, and encourages and supports students from all disciplines to challenge themselves by participating in competitions both locally and internationally.
Tan Lin Nah, Chief Operating Officer of INTI explains, “Competitions are a growing trend among established organisations, with many using competitions as a means to give back to society and also to build a talent pipeline with the crème of participants as potential future hires. For students, competitions serve as important platforms where both technical and employability skills can be improved – including skills such as research, critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and communication skills. It also provides students with an opportunity to network and connect with future employers, developing their professional experiences and helping them understand early in their careers the expectations and trends impacting the workplace.”
Natasha, Natalia and Nur Azre (fifth, sixth and seventh from left) with global competitors at the Global L’Oreal Brandstorm 2018 competition.
Twin sisters Natalia Bong Sue Yin and Natasha Bong Sue Yan, both currently pursuing Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) Bachelor of Science in Business Studies (majoring in International Management, minoring in Psychology) programme at INTI International College Subang and fellow team mate Nur Azre Abdul Aziz, an INTI alumna, couldn’t agree more – having represented Malaysia in global competitions including Unilever’s Future Leaders League 2017 in London, and the L’Oreal Brandstorm competition 2018 in Paris. The twins were also named 1st Runner Up in PwC’s Trust Builders Challenge 2017.
Currently interning as a Digital Customer Consulting Intern with KPMG, Singapore, and a KPMG ASEAN scholarship holder, Natasha shared: “Our biggest driver in participating in competitions is experience. We believe that only by joining external activities and events (which includes competitions), can you add value to your academic learning. Academic learning is undeniably important but going the extra mile beyond academics has helped us develop time management skills, communication skills, and our ability to adapt to changes. Every competition we’ve joined is an experience gained, and every experience is a story to tell.”
Natalia, an Operations and Sustainability Consulting Intern with PwC Malaysia added, “Studying at INTI has helped us realise the realities of the job market and that to stand out, we have to prepare ourselves with the right skills and experiences. By joining competitions, we have gained industry experience and built a growing network with working professionals who have imparted their knowledge and ideas to us. These connections, learning opportunities and our overall desire for gaining experiences have pushed us to participate in competitions, adding value to the competencies we are developing for the future.”
In addition to building employability skills and business acumen, competitions have also served as a platform for the twins to give back to society. Participating in the Youth Leadership Academy 2017, they took on the 10-week programme that challenged them to develop their own social enterprises for a better Malaysia, with Natasha’s team looking at the reduction of food wastage, while Natalia’s focused on making healthcare accessible to Orang Asli communities. The twins and their teams were named Champion and 1st Runner Up respectively for their ideas, an experience they said, taught them the value of social responsibility towards marginalised communities and causes.
This sense of social awareness has also led them to look for other opportunities, including being part of the organising committee for the upcoming Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) Asia Conference, a forum for students and young professionals to discuss and learn about economic, political, and social issues facing the Asia-Pacific region, which will be held in Kuala Lumpur this year.
“Holistic experiences are part of why we chose the SNHU programme as the programme is not only limited to business subjects, but provides a wider look into areas such as ethics, psychology and public speaking – all of which have played a part in enabling us to think outside the box when we approach these competitions. Additionally, the faculty at INTI’s Center for American Education and INTI’s Career Services department have been very supportive of our participation in off-campus programmes, not only advising us when such opportunities arise but also being open to bounce off ideas when we were in the midst of preparing for them,” explained Natalia, who also attributed part of their success to the confidence they gained at their secondary school, Asia Pacific Smart School.
When asked what their biggest challenges were going into these competitions, Natasha shared, “Our biggest challenge is usually finding the right team members as teamwork is a key factor. Each member may have different ideas and priorities in life, and the difficult part is weaving all these different expectations into a common ground that all members feel comfortable with.
“Time management is also a huge factor as aside from competitions, we are also involved in quite a number of other activities, as well as maintaining our CGPA. For example, during our preparation for the L’Oreal Brandstorm this year, we were already involved in preparing for HPAIR and were part of Microsoft’s Modern Workplace Squad where we work with Microsoft Malaysia clients on effective adoption of Office365. Handling all these projects simultaneously required proper time management but being twins helped us to an extent as we could split tasks and manage our workload better.”
Commenting on the balance between studies and out-of-campus activities, Lin Nah shared, “Both SNHU and INTI offer an innovative approach to the delivery of course content, with interactive teaching that takes place both in the classroom and online. By leveraging technology in the learning process and having online access to resources, students are better equipped with the tools and information they need even before they step into the classroom. It also gives them the flexibility to pursue interests such as competitions, while remaining engaged with their studies.”
Sharing the key takeaways they gained from their experiences in competitions, both twins agreed that being willing to try, making friends rather than seeing other teams as competitors, and taking the opportunity to network with industry partners were some of the qualities they had developed through their experiences. Most importantly, setbacks especially in developing and delivering award-winning plans were part and parcel of the experience and should be taken as learning curves rather than confidence crushers.
“Our advice to other students who are keen to pursue competitions is – you can do it! Being willing to try is half the battle won and you should never think that your ideas are not good enough. Be willing to apply and work for these competitions, and enjoy the learning outcomes and experiences as much as the tangible prizes that come with it. Ultimately have fun with the experience – many of them open doors that you may have never dreamed off!” concluded Natalia.