It is no secret that Malaysia is undergoing a huge construction boom when it comes to building public transport infrastructure. However, a good part of the development is below the ground surface which often calls for underground stations and tunnels.

The current drive to construct several MRT and LRT lines in the Klang Valley, other than intercity projects such as the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail as well as the East Coast Rail Line, has drastically upped the demand for skilled manpower competent to work in confined spaces.

These confined spaces can be anything from multi-storey basements located several storeys underground – such as the upcoming Bukit Bintang MRT station – to the interior of a tunnel boring machine used to excavate the long rail tunnels of the Klang Valley MRT (KVMRT) project.

The participation by MMC-Gamuda JV (MGJV) in the KVMRT project has changed many things for the better in the construction sector.

Firstly, it has opened up an entirely new vista for SPM leavers who are unsure of the path to take after leaving school.

Prior to this, it was quite common for many of them to languish in the villages doing odd jobs.

Of course, some are fortunate enough to enter the various skills training institutes such as Institut Kemahiran Belia Negara (IKBN), Institut Kemahiran Mara, or one of the many polytechnics.

These TTA graduates took on significant roles in the underground works for MRT Line 1. — MENG YEW CHOONG/The Star

These TTA graduates took on significant roles in the underground works for MRT Line 1. Photo: The Star/Meng Yew Choong

Gamuda’s outreach programme in these skills training institutes has made a difference as it has opened the eyes of many to the potential in underground-related work.

Prior to this, many had never even considered a career in the construction industry, let alone underground construction.

Take, for example, Shazryl Aiqal Saini Amir, 23, who hails from Bota Kanan, Perak.

“After I finished SPM in 2011, a friend informed me of this opening at the Tunnelling Training Academy operated by Gamuda. Prior to that, I’ve never heard of things like doing work underground,” said Shazryl Aiqal, who ended up as a tunnel crew in Cochrane when the tunnel boring machines started to excavate the Sungai Buloh-Kajang Line (or Line 1) of the KVMRT.

Tunnelling Training Academy

Shazryl Aiqal’s transition to the industry was made easy by Gamuda’s Tunnelling Training Academy (TTA), which is co-located with its Construction Training Centre at Kota Kemuning, Shah Alam.

According to Gamuda Engineering Sdn Bhd managing director Datuk Ubull Din Om, his company is especially proud of its six-year-old TTA, which is the world’s first academy that places heavy emphasis on mechanised tunnelling by teaching local youths the finer points of sophisticated tunnel boring machines (TBMs).

“The idea for the TTA was mooted to fulfil the need for a workforce with technical knowledge and skills in tunnelling after Gamuda built the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel using TBMs. Other than that, Gamuda has always been involved in projects with extensive underground works, including the Sungai Selangor Dam, the Penchala Link on Sprint Highway, the Kaohsiung Metropolitan Rapid Transit System in Taiwan, and the electrified double track project for KTMB from Ipoh to Padang Besar.

Trainees undertaking electrical works inside a tunnel boring machine at Gamuda’s Tunnelling Training Academy.

Trainees undertaking electrical works inside a tunnel boring machine at Gamuda’s Tunnelling Training Academy.

“To date, MMC-Gamuda has invested RM15mil for the set-up at the TTA, which is also consistent with the Government’s aspirations for Malaysia to become a high income nation by 2020 through the creation of niche employment in high value added industries. By producing a pool of local talent for tunnelling and underground works, we could be less dependent on foreign labour,” Ubull added.

The TTA took in its maiden batch of students in December 2011 and according to Ubull, they are already seeing the multiplier effects.

“A number of TTA graduates as well as our engineers and technical staff have found gainful employment related to tunnelling and underground works in Singapore. But rather than look at it as losing talent, we see it as an opportunity to expand our business into Singapore and tap into the very talent pool that we trained,” Ubull said, adding that Gamuda was also proud that Malaysian expertise was exportable.

He said that the TTA was also in line with Gamuda’s role to build the nation through its involvement in building significant infrastructure.

Ubull says the award of infrastructure contracts to local players will ensure the sustainability of jobs for Malaysian youths. — MENG YEW CHOONG/The Star

Ubull says the award of infrastructure contracts to local players will ensure the sustainability of jobs for Malaysian youths. Photo: Filepic

“As long as our business grows and we are awarded more projects, we will remain steadfast in our commitment to train and employ local youths to enable them to be part of charting Malaysia’s progress,” Ubull added.

Specialist training

Training modules are divided into two main categories: skills training lasting from one to 12 weeks (leading to Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) 2 or equivalent), and specialist training lasting from two to 16 weeks (leading to a diploma).

Facilities there include classrooms, an actual TBM cutter wheel, shotcrete mould, testing unit for annular gap filling (grouting), testing unit for foam production, laboratory apparatus, as well as equipment and devices for data acquisition and analysis, and erector simulator for tunnel ring building.

Before entering TTA, some of the trainees were earning only RM900 due to their low qualifications. Following their “graduation” from TTA and subsequent entry into the Gamuda workforce, their salaries nearly tripled, with starting pay ranging from RM1,600 (scaffolding) to RM2,000 (civil and structure works).

Collaboration between Gamuda and the relevant government agencies proved to be fruitful. For example, one of the ways to enrol in the training course is through internship arranged between TTA and the Higher Education Ministry as well as the Youth and Sports Ministry, which is in charge of Institusi Latihan Kemahiran Belia dan Sukan (ILKBS).

“Being awarded the Builder of the Year in 2016 from the Construction Industry Development Board provides credibility to our partnership. The strategic alliance between the Youth and Sports Ministry and Gamuda started when we signed a memorandum of understanding in August 2015, and it has benefited the students in many ways,” said Dr Wasitah Mohd Yusof, director-general of IKBN’s Youth Skills Development Division.

“The training syllabus provides ILKBS students with the industrial experience, especially in the field of construction and civil engineering. They undergo a ‘sandwich programme’ in which they learn courses such as Civil and Structure Supervisory – SKM3 and Scaffolding (Intermediate Level) for an overall understanding and know-how. Students are also given the chance to participate in on-the-job training to prepare them to work in the construction industry.

Wasitah credits IKBN’s partnership with Gamuda for the many success stories in building skilled local talents.

Wasitah credits IKBN’s partnership with Gamuda for the many success stories in building skilled local talents.

“It is truly gratifying to hear and see the success stories we have with these students who were trained by TTA. These young talents, equipped with the right skills and groomed in the right environment, are what the country needs as we develop the nation. As Malaysia embarks on more infrastructure projects, we need many good local talents to do the job,” said Wasitah.

The Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya MRT (or Line 2) of KVMRT will have 11 underground stations within a pair of 13.5km-long tunnels, the longest land transport tunnel in Malaysia. Site preparation works are already under way in anticipation of tunnelling work that will begin in November.

More than 900 skilled workers qualified to work underground will be needed then, and the bulk of them will be supplied by TTA. These will be supplemented by the existing tunnelling crew who worked on Line 1.

Mohd Zulfitri Zakiyudin is a tunnel electrician from Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan, who graduated from IKM Jasin, Malacca, with a Sijil Kejuruteraan Elektrik Kuasa (A1) in 2011. He then worked for Telekom Malaysia before he and his younger brother applied to join Gamuda’s 11th TTA intake. Encouraged by their parents, both of them were accepted into the academy in October 2013.

Zulfitri, 27, learnt about operating the first TBM of Line 1 while based at the Cochrane station. “I know I can’t get such an opportunity unless I go out of the country. With the skills and knowledge gained through TTA and the project, maybe I’d have the chance to work overseas some day and make my parents even prouder.”

Muhammad Halif Usop is a 25-year-old tunnel electrician from Keningau, Sabah, who is currently part of the underground team. While waiting for his SPM results in 2009, Halif took a part-time job as a shop assistant at a mall for a few months before entering Institut Kemahiran Mara in Kota Kinabalu. Upon his graduation, he landed a job as an electrical contractor and worked for one and a half years before he found his calling in the tunnelling profession, thanks to ILKBS.

World-class engineering

“Being trained under TTA has given me a whole new perspective of the construction industry. I’m amazed by the world-class engineering that MMC-Gamuda uses to build tunnels. And while I was at TTA, my welfare was well taken care of, both in terms of accommodation and transportation. I feel l have the potential to grow my skills and my career with the company.”

Trainees can learn all about the mechanical and electrical aspects of mechanised tunnelling inside a tunnel boring machine.

Trainees can learn all about the mechanical and electrical aspects of mechanised tunnelling inside a tunnel boring machine.

Mohamad Azlan Ramli, 26, is another eager beaver who found his niche in tunnelling after ditching a job in a detergent factory.

After his SPM in 2008, Azlan worked in a factory before he was offered a place in Institut Kemahiran Tinggi Belia Negara in Pagoh. He decided to pursue a Diploma of Mechanical Technology (Welding). Upon graduation, he received an invitation to attend an interview for enrolment in TTA last June.

“I’ve heard about the MRT project from my brother. He knew that I’ve always liked welding works and handling a machine, so being involved in the project would be good for me. The TTA training helped a lot in terms of broadening my knowledge and skills. It helped me secure a job with MMC-Gamuda.

Brimming with confidence that the underground construction industry holds great promise, Azlan added: “I would love to upgrade myself to take on supervisory roles. I am ready to take on more responsibilities after upskilling myself.”

Getting young people to join the industry can also yield some great gems such as Mohd Nor Shafiq Hadi Misro, 24, who joined Gamuda as a general worker right after finishing SPM in 2010.

“I was 18 then, and had no idea what the company did at that time,” said Nor Shafiq, who ended up setting up the TBM with his batch mates for the benefit of new trainees after MMC-Gamuda landed the Line 1 MRT job.

“We set up the cutterhead, learned shotcreting (cement that is sprayed) and everything else about TBMs. After a year, I was appointed as assistant site supervisor,” he added.

As a junior supervisor in charge of civil and structural works at the Cochrane station in 2012, he was involved in the preparatory work for TBM launching, including blasting work for launch shaft construction, as well as reinforced concrete work for the station slabs.

He is now a site supervisor in charge of the upcoming Ampang Park station in Line 2, all in less than three years.

“Every year, I take new steps in my career. It is a great progression, compared to the days when I practically knew nothing,” said Nor Shafiq, who took on odd jobs such as harvesting oil palm in his village after SPM.

“I was thinking of becoming a mechanic, servicing motorcycles for a living. I could not see my future as I did not know what’s really out there.

“People say underground work is dark, stuffy and involves long hours. But with an excellent career development path in front of me, I can only say that my future is bright.”