KUALA LUMPUR – In April during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period, CAD (computer-aided design) designer Najihah Omar faced a dilemma.
The company she worked for was on the brink of closing down and she had two choices – to quit the job she really enjoyed or wait to be laid off. She opted for the former and hoped to find a new job after the government eased the movement restrictions.
Landing a suitable job was not easy for Najihah, who has a postgraduate degree in architecture, and since her savings were depleting fast, she accepted a job as a nursery school teacher. Later she was offered a job as a graphic designer which she accepted although she was underpaid.
Najiha was among the many Malaysians who lost their jobs and businesses just after the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation.
Now, some eight months later, things seem to be looking up as the employment market trend in Malaysia is showing signs of recovery. According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the unemployment figure for the month of August dropped by 3,500 to 741,600.
Digitalisation creates more jobs
SME Association of Malaysia president Datuk Michael Kang Hua Keong said although the COVID-19 pandemic affected many companies and hiked up the unemployment rate, many new opportunities were created during the crisis.
In fact, Companies Commission of Malaysia statistics showed that in August alone 20,000 companies were set up, compared to 20,000 companies that were closed down between March and September this year.
“Digitalisation is the trend now. The pandemic saw a surge in online businesses, and social media and webinars are being fully utilised in business,” he told Bernama, adding that it is important for employees to learn a new set of skills involving the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data in order for them to gain an advantage in the job market.
Kang also hoped that the government would allocate more funds to allow small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to retrain or upskill their employees so that they can adapt to the new normal business environment.
“We agree that a lot of grants were channelled to SMEs to assist them in their digital transformation, and soft loans, including wage subsidy by the government, were also provided for SMEs to retain their employees.
“However, there’s (a lot of) bureaucracy in the system, especially when it comes to assisting SMEs in their digitalisation efforts and obtaining bank loans to help them to keep their cash flow going and retain their employees,” he said.
Kang hoped the government would increase the matching grant for SMEs to adapt to digitalisation from the current RM5,000 to between RM10,000 and RM15,000 per company.
He also hoped that the number of beneficiaries for the grant would be increased from 100,000 to 300,000.
“These efforts will enable many SMEs to get through the pandemic and save their businesses and jobs,” he added.
Small business, big profit
Universiti Malaysia Kelantan Entrepreneurship Institute senior director Dr Nik Maheran Nik Muhammad urged entrepreneurs to change the ‘brick and mortar’ style of business to the digital model as the former is no longer suited to the current situation.
In fact, she added, small online businesses can be more profitable than large-scale businesses.
“The term ‘pop-up store’ is on-trend now due to entrepreneurs switching to delivery services and online businesses,” she said.
Pop-up stores refer to retail shops that e-commerce merchants open temporarily to take advantage of the seasonal demand for certain types of goods. In the current environment, face masks and gloves are some of the fast-selling items by pop-up stores.
Nik Maheran also pointed to companies such as Amazon, Shopee, Pos Laju, GDEX and Netflix as examples of businesses that are using digital technology to benefit from the new business environment.
She also urged graduates to become entrepreneurs in view of the limited job opportunities available to them, saying that doing business nowadays does not require a large capital because there is no need to rent premises.
“Just learn how to utilise the power of social media,” she said, adding that graduates also need to be creative and innovative in their businesses, especially in terms of their marketing strategies.
On the Hiring Incentive Programme – an economic recovery and unemployment reduction initiative under the Ministry of Human Resources – Nik Maheran said not all companies were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The impact has been positive for some companies, for example, insurance companies because with COVID-19, people were looking for opportunities for self-protection,” she said.
Real estate companies are also positively impacted and are recruiting more real estate agents and consultants as the lower property prices are attracting buyers.
Rise of the gig workers
Meanwhile, with the pandemic driving the gig economy – a term used to describe the freelance ecosystem where jobless workers have taken to offering their services on a freelance, flexible or part-time basis – remote and freelance working have emerged as the new norm.
People heading for the freelance ecosystem are not only looking for an extra or a main source of income but are also driven by the flexibility in terms of working hours and work locations and the freedom to choose the type of work they want to do. And, the pay can be lucrative as well.
Bank Islam Malaysia Bhd chief economist Mohd Afzanizam Abdul Rashid said the gig economy appears to be the quick win during this pandemic because of its easy access and high demand as well as the proliferation of technology.
“However, the focus should evolve beyond food or parcel deliveries should we want to achieve a developed status at some point in the future.
“Perhaps, work related to research and development, advertising, software development or anything to do with advanced technology and highly-skilled work should be the primary focus,” he said.
He also stressed that although gig economies offer highly efficient solutions to businesses, as well as flexibility and economies of scale which can be very cost-effective, issues related to secrecy and data protection should be observed as gig workers can be employed by multiple employers at the same time.
The gig economy offers many advantages but, warned Mohd Afzanizam, this platform has no social security which means that gig employees have to manage their own retirement funds.
“This, however, can be done by contributing to Private Retirement Schemes and even to EPF (Employees Provident Fund) voluntarily,” he said.
Asked how the gig economy will affect youths, Mohd Afzanizam said he would like to think that the gig economy and the spirit of entrepreneurship are closely linked as “gig workers are supposed to be independent as they are not bound to formal employment contracts”.
“Hence, the youth need to be agile, have the right attitude towards work and have a good sense about the future prospects especially when dealing with trendy stuff and things that could evolve almost immediately,” he added.