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ASEAN Needs to Prepare Now for the Future of Work

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Pacific Money | Economy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN Needs to Prepare Now for the Future of Work

Amid rapid economic and technological changes, Southeast Asian governments need to offer generous subsidies for digital upskilling.

ASEAN Needs to Prepare Now for the Future of Work
Credit: Depositphotos

Global megatrends​ in the form of technological progress and demographic shifts, as well as unpredictable events like the COVID-19 pandemic, have inevitably influenced the skills that people need for their work, both now and in the future.

With this change, digital knowledge and skills have become qualities that are not just preferred but are required by many employers. Digital literacy, which refers to a person’s ability to confidently and autonomously use digital platforms to learn, socialize, and participate in creating and communicating digital content, has become non-negotiable in the modern workplace.

According to research by UNICEF, most of ASEAN’s young people obtain a moderate level of digital literacy, but noticeable differences remain between individual countries. According to UNICEF’s 2021 survey findings, by far the highest level of digital literacy is found in Singapore, where 62 percent of youth perceive their level of digital literacy to be very good. This is compared to 23 percent in Laos and 20 percent in Myanmar.

According to a 2018 study by the United States-based digital communications company Cisco on technology and the future of jobs in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as many as 6.6 million jobs will become redundant by 2028 across the six largest ASEAN economies: the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cisco’s analysis further reveals that 41 percent of those workers lack the essential skills, including digital skills, that future jobs will demand. To ensure that their skillsets meet job creation, workers will need to upskill.

To build an inclusive ecosystem for workforces across ASEAN, reskilling and upskilling will require action by both governments and the private sector.

For employers, providing training to upskill their employees has the potential to deliver clear benefits for their companies in terms of performance and productivity. However, a major concern that requires some examination is less whether enough employees in this region are just trained than whether they are “trainable” to begin with.

Trainability refers to an employee’s ability to learn, master and apply new skills, in this case, skills related to digital knowledge. As Christian Viegelahn, a labor economist at the Regional Economic and Social Analysis Unit of the International Labour Organization puts it, “The basic literacy and skills to comprehend are what employers ask for the public education system or government to provide while they are happy to pay and provide specific skills that the company needs as long as the workers can absorb those needed skills.”

Based on the 2018 ASEAN-UNICEF Conference on 21st Century Skills, companies are becoming more interested in hiring trainable staff who can be easily brought up to the necessary level. This is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in an era of crisis in higher education, where degrees and qualifications are starting to matter less along with the rise of self-directed learning.

As part of this same conference, Amarit Charoenphan, CEO of HUBBA and Techsauce, the first co-working space in Thailand, pointed out that a predicted 1.8 million jobs in ASEAN will be lost to artificial intelligence (AI) in the coming years, but that 2.3 million jobs will also be created. This means that workers will need both skills to secure a job and work with AI and that workers will also have to be trainable to adapt to these rapid shifts.

The Philippines is generally recognized to have a highly motivated and trainable labor force compared to other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. “Apart from the young, the Philippine workforce is distinguished by high trainability… proficiency in English language, technological skill, cost-efficiency, cultural adaptability and a low turn-over or attrition rate,” Philippine President Ferdinand​ ​Marcos, Jr. said late last year.

According to HKTDC Research, an essential source of economic and trade information, the education level of the Philippines’ labor force who attained tertiary education (21 percent) is notably higher than many ASEAN countries, including even Singapore (16 percent). Most Filipino workers are fluent in English, which makes it easier for them to be trained by an international employer. Aside from this, the Philippines also has highly qualified managers and information technology (IT) staff and engineers. In the Philippines, business administration, education and teacher training, information technology, engineering and technology, and medicine, are the top five disciplines in higher education, accounting for about 77 percent of all enrolled students.

By contrast, in Cambodia, due to a skills shortage, firms may hire insufficiently skilled workers with the expectation that they can be trained. However, some employees might not possess suitable qualifications or educational experience to absorb new skills. Given this mismatch, these workers are likely to quit and change jobs. But if the mismatch persists and workers continue to lack the skills required for their career development, they are prone to repeat the cycle of quitting and starting new jobs. This pattern indeed contributes to the high turnover rate without solving problems related to inexperience for the positions in question.

Government support in enhancing workforce capacity in a number of ASEAN countries has been insufficient so far. Governments in this region need to tackle this issue head-on to be sure our workforces are not just equipped with the latest knowledge in this ever-changing environment, but also that these workforces are trainable and agile, and able to adapt to the coming changes.

Governments across ASEAN are attempting a variety of initiatives to try to make their workforces more competitive in the digital economy. Countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are doing quite well and already have government upskilling initiatives in place.

In Malaysia, the government has been implementing various programs to help to upskill its population after the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these is called MyDigitalWorkforce Work in Tech (MYWiT), an in-house digital skills training initiative. More than just offering training to employees, this initiative aims to assist both parties in the workforce ecosystem by also providing incentives for companies to hire digital talent. MyWiT initiative aims to get 6,000 Malaysians hired in the third quarter of 2022.

Another interesting example comes from Singapore, where the government is upskilling its workforce through free government-organized workshops, known as the SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) initiatives, introduced in 2015. The program offers attendees access to more than 400 courses with 10 programs for both individuals and enterprises. Programs including instruction on data analytics, digital commerce, infocomm technology, and customer service reported high enrollment. In 2021, about 660,000 Singaporean individuals benefited from SSG initiatives, 40,000 more than in 2019. The number of enterprises that benefited remained constant at 24,000, SSG stated in its 2021 Year-In-Review.

Of course, not all ASEAN member governments have a budget to sustainably run a free upskilling program on the Singaporean model. Therefore, ASEAN governments, especially those that are lagging behind in terms of digital literacy, should consider initiating workforce digital upskilling subsidy programs. These programs, for instance, could be partially funded by governments and could allow individuals or corporate employees who are qualified to enroll in digital skills training, provided by third parties. A government-subsidized fund could help allow those without the financial means to participate in the training, one of the top three challenges raised by Southeast Asia’s youth.

In the case of Cambodia, for instance, an initiative of government-subsidized programming would be perfectly aligned with the establishment of the Cambodia-Japan Digitalized Manufacturing Center (CJDM). This will develop human resources in Cambodia for the digital sector in order to meet future workforce demands by providing high-quality professional training solutions for Industry 4.0.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, to help people get better at their jobs and learn more about technology, the Digital Council, an organization that works with the government and private sector, has initiated an online Personal Data Protection Knowledge Course. Online courses tend to be more cost-effective than other training methods as well as less time-consuming, which addresses another top challenge mentioned by the region’s youth: a shortage of time.

In the future, workforces will undoubtedly require more digital knowledge. As a result, ASEAN member states must prioritize smart investments in this area. To keep the region competitive, now and into the future, member states must ensure they are producing workforces that are not just trained, but also infinitely trainable.