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This Penang tech school fixes an issue that unis tend to ignore—teaching employable skills

[Written in partnership with MaGIC, but the editorial team had full control over the content.]

“Did you know that on average, employers from the tech industry will have to retrain graduates for an average of 8 months or so before they are deemed to be job-ready?”

And this is just one of the issues Howie Chang has identified throughout senior positions in his tech career as a practitioner and hiring manager in various capacities.

According to him, universities also aren’t designed change curricula and introduce new classes at the pace needed to keep up with changing industry requirements, especially in the tech industry.

This leads to a significant mismatch between the skills that employers seek and those that the students actually possess upon graduation.

Ultimately, fresh graduates, jobseekers, and employers big and small suffer. Knowing that he could do something about it, Howie co-founded Forward School in March 2020, headquartered in Penang.

Teaching employable skills

To put it simply, Forward School can be described as an employment-as-a-norm school, meaning that the way it teaches its students prioritises employability.

What we mean by employability is skills that can immediately be put to use in a company, thus tackling the aforementioned issue of employers having to spend resources to retrain talents.

Seeing that this is quite an issue, I then wondered why universities didn’t seem to be doing anything about it.

Howie supplied, “Universities tend to be more focused on research activities as their global ranking is largely influenced by the number of papers that their lecturers and professors publish in journals.”

So, unless there are major reforms across the globe on how universities are perceived, little will change. This is where Forward School comes in to make a difference.

“We are a project-first school and there are no big one-off exams. Instead, you learn experientially, the fastest way to become operational,” Howie told Vulcan Post.

Students attending a class / Image Credit: Forward School

“Secondly, we give them an accreditation that matters. Students can earn certificates and accredited diplomas in software engineering, data science, AI, and more.”

According to Howie, this sets Forward School apart from typical bootcamp schools. To add, its programmes cater to a wider scope of students, ranging from SPM leavers to “lane-changers”, AKA those switching career fields, and even to those in tech who simply want to upskill.

Forward School’s programmes can be split into part-time and full-time ones, along with differentiating complexity levels.

DifficultyBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced
Part-TimeData Science EssentialsApplied Data ScienceApplied Deep Learning
Full-TimeApplied Software Engineering

The part-time programmes span 2 months each and students can attend them on-campus or online, subject to a course’s outlines.

Meanwhile, the Applied Software Engineering programme spans 2 years and is an accredited Level 4 Diploma under Jabatan Pembangunan Kemahiran (JPK), endorsed by the Ministry of Human Resource Malaysia.

As Forward School partners with 8 other universities in Malaysia, students can also continue their studies to receive a 3-year degree in a relevant field via credit transfer or the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) route.

Guaranteeing jobs upon graduation

One other thing that stood out to me about Forward School was with its Applied Software Engineering Diploma.

While students can choose to pay the full course fees by semester, there are other financing options available:

  • ‍Income Share Agreement (ISA): Advanced Enrolment Deposit (RM3,000), RM0 tuition + 15% of gross income for 120 months‍;
  • Education Loan by ECM Libra: Advanced Enrolment Deposit (RM3,000), RM0 tuition + 0% interest and repayment for 60 months‍;
  • Student Sponsorship Program: RM0 tuition + Bonded with sponsoring company upon graduation.

What I found interesting was the third option from above: a company sponsoring a student’s learning. My question to Howie then was how does that differ from a company having to retrain a talent while paying their salary? What is incentivising a company to sponsor a student?

“The difference is in building a talent pipeline that is both scalable and sustainable. Our hiring partners who work with us take this seriously and they understand the need to nurture and grow their talent pool early,” Howie replied.

“Sponsoring companies have access to their talents from the get-go, and because of our programme structure, students work with their company once a week (full-day) from Year 1, Semester 2 onwards.”

By the time they graduate, they will be more than ready to enter the relevant workforce. This is a clear example of Forward School’s employment-as-a-norm practice.

In fact, Forward School is so confident in its ability to prepare students for the workforce across all its programmes, to the point that it offers a worldwide job guarantee.

“Tuition fees are refunded if a student does not find a job within 6 months of graduation,” Howie stated.

That guarantee aside, this model of having companies sponsoring students who will join them upon graduation is similar to how 42 KL functions, with the main difference being its specific focus on coding skills.

Changing the educational landscape

Since opening its doors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s trained more than 300 students across all its programmes, and Howie was proud to share that they have more than 25 hiring partners onboard too.

A co-living and co-working space are available at the centre, so students from other states have accommodation options, albeit limited ones. Thus, Forward School’s online learning capabilities fill in the gaps.

At the moment, the bulk of their students consists of lane-changers and enterprise clients, but with the accreditation of their Applied Software Engineering programme, Howie foresees significant growth as they’ll reach more SPM leavers.

Moving forward, Howie hopes Forward School can impact students outside of Malaysia too, and their growth will be supported by MaGIC.

The Forward School team / Image Credit: Forward School

Howie and MaGIC actually go way back to when he was a consultant with InvestPenang after returning from an 18-year stay in Singapore.

Since then, he’s witnessed the agency’s impact on our local startup ecosystem, and with Forward School being part of Cohort 5 in the Global Accelerator Programme (GAP), he’s able to experience it first-hand.

Through it, he’s connected with like-minded founders and mentors, all of which have sharpened his startup’s positioning and grown his confidence in running Forward School.

The global education system needs to adapt to an increasingly digital-first world. Our school system hasn’t changed for the longest time and it was designed on the basis and needs of the Industrial Revolution. In today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, we see the need for students to learn, unlearn, and relearn so that they can transform the future of work and participate as creators in the digital economy with the skills they acquired.

Howie Chang, co-founder of Forward School.

Editor’s Note: The above quote by Howie was changed to reflect the intended meaning of his stance better.

  • You can learn more about Forward School here.
  • You can read more content about education startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Forward School

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