English proficiencies have been increasingly demanded by employers, especially given the increase in globalization and foreign investments and relations in Indonesia. Employers have reported that English fluency is an important skill across industries, whether as a necessity to secure a job or as a value-added, particularly for career progression and promotions. Hence, developing English competencies is important, particularly in vocational schools (Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan or SMK) that aim to prepare students directly for the job market. The effectiveness of English teaching and learning in SMK depends on the attitudes and perceptions of teachers, students, and parents.
In general, teachers and students agree that English is important to improve employability, although to varying degrees. SMK students need to meet the expected proficiency of their industry upon graduation, as 70% of graduates seek employment, rather than continue their studies in universities. Unfortunately, there remains a skill gap as both employers and teachers have revealed that SMK graduates tend to have lower English competencies than their industry requirements. As a result, this may reflect negatively on their competitiveness in the job market and thereby limit their job prospects.
The availability of qualified English teachers for SMK students is one contributing factor. Employers have also argued that English teachers themselves do not have a good understanding of the industry requirements. Studies have also demonstrated that SMK English teachers tend to struggle with their pedagogical and professionalism competencies, consequently affecting their ability to support and facilitate the students’ development of English proficiencies in a way that matches their industry’s demands.
Meanwhile, teachers have attributed weaknesses in the 2013 curriculum, time constraints, as well as students’ lack of motivation as the main challenges in improving students’ English competencies. Currently, English studies in SMKs are still too general and do not follow a ESP (English for Specific Purpose) approach, which would be adjusted appropriately to the demands of their respective majors and industries. In fact, there is no difference between the required competencies that students must attain in their English studies at the SMK level and the SMA level. Consequently, SMK students tend to develop only basic proficiencies in English, which is still below the required capacity by employers across industries. This leaves SMK students unprepared for the job market, and there is urgency to address this especially as SMKs are currently reported to be the highest contributors to unemployment in Indonesia compared to other education levels.
In order to facilitate improvements in student’s English proficiencies and ensure that the skills developed in school matches the demands of the industry, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology should pay attention to how the curriculum impacts the learning experiences and attitudes of English at the SMK level. The ESP approach needs to be adopted, and therefore better prepare SMK students for the job market. This can be done through revising the basic competencies of English studies at the SMK level (especially to ensure that it is distinct from the SMA level), fostering collaborations with industry players to develop ESP for each major, ensuring availability and access to more learning resources that support the ESP approach, provide training opportunities for English SMK teachers to increase industry-knowledge and improve the infrastructure needed to support students’ development of English proficiencies outside of school.