It’s a tumultuous time in southeast Asian economies. The United Nations’ International Labour Organization estimates that 137 million people (more than half these nations’ workforces) in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand risk losing their jobs to automation over the next two decades. These jobs are almost exclusively lower-skilled jobs in manufacturing, retail, and similar industries.
At the same time, other industries suffer talent shortages. A study from Korn Ferry found that the Asia Pacific Region could face a shortage of 47 million workers by 2030, a deficit that will disproportionately affect financial and business services. Even Singapore, whose workforce has a far larger percentage of skilled workers than other Southeast Asian countries, is being held back by a skills gap. There are estimates that the city-state will need 600 new skilled foreign workers every year to accomplish fintech development goals set by the national government. A report from Google and Temasek agreed that talent shortage is holding back regional startup development.
How can Southeast Asia solve its labor woes? There’s no panacea for this complex problem, but there is a range of solutions advocated by leaders, businesses, tech startups, and other major stakeholders.
1. Education and Reskilling
The skills needed for economic success have always evolved, and will continue to do so. By one estimate, 65% of primary school children will wind up working in jobs that don’t exist yet. Robust educational opportunities and reskilling opportunities are important everywhere in the global economy, but they’re exceedingly pressing in Southeast Asia. Education and reskilling opportunities can help populations that are at risk of job loss from automation; they can also help companies cope with a younger, less experienced workforce–a necessity in a region where the average worker’s age is only 30.
A recent World Economic Forum report claims that a shift in educational curricula will be essential for developing necessary skills, encouraging substantially more study of topics such as engineering, health, and natural sciences. As internet and smartphone access expands–southeast Asia is expected to have 480 million internet users by 2020–online education could play a significant role in skill-building initiatives.
2. Immigration Policy Changes
Immigration is no panacea, but it could play a significant role in the talent shortages across the Asia-Pacific region. Some leaders and pundits encourage higher immigration flow within the ten member states of ASEAN, and across borders with other Asian nations. A recent Economist article pointed to the benefits of allowing southeast Asian immigration into countries such as China to fill acute low-skill labor shortages in personal care and other difficult-to-automate industries. Other individuals like Benjamin Harkins from the International Labour Organization advocate a nuanced examination of immigration’s impact, pointing to findings that less-advantaged migrants are more vulnerable to labor rights violations.
High-skilled immigration could help nations like Singapore who are hungry for more technical and management-oriented talent obtain those workers; this reasoning has driven the rise of Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) for certain skilled professions such as nurses and tourism professionals. The World Bank claims that reducing mobility barriers for workers in Southeast Asia could improve workers’ welfare by 14% if applied to high-skilled workers and 29% if targeted at all workers.
3. Better Hiring Platforms
Better hiring tools alone won’t fix labor shortages, but they can help companies looking for talent and qualified candidates looking for jobs find each other; this means that both parties can extract maximum value from a difficult labor market. Recruiting startups are responding to demand in-kind. GetLinks, described in Fast Company as “Tinder for techies,” emerged from the Southeast Asian tech scene and has proven helpful for tech companies hiring in the region and tech workers looking to network. Startup Helpster is more blue-collar oriented, designed to help semi-skilled workers find southeast Asian employers using only a smartphone app.
As the global labor market tightens, a host of new hiring platforms are emerging to offer new recruiting technology on a worldwide scale. Startup BHIRED.io uses blockchain to gather high-quality hiring data and create a highly productive, accountable ecosystem for candidates, recruiters, and hiring managers. AI tools such as HireVue use machine learning to help employers and recruiters screen soft skills more effectively. Some of these new hiring platforms were born in Southeast Asia, and some were created elsewhere, but they all have the potential to help address talent issues in the region.
Southeast Asia has a host of burgeoning tech scenes and vibrant economies, but ongoing talent issues will stymie this region’s development. A combination of tech innovation and public policy will be essential to ensuring southeast Asia’s economic future.
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