Narrowing Asia’s skills gap for economic recovery and resiliency

Co-authored by Ahmed Mazhari, President, Microsoft Asia and Fang Ruan, Managing Director, BCG Hong Kong.This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

Ahmed MazhariFang RuanAs the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading earlier this year, NTT Data rolled out an online training platform for employees who needed to learn how to use new collaboration tools as they shifted to working from home.

At the same time, the Japan-based systems integrator gave employees more “Self-Innovation” time, meaning there were work hours that they could dedicate to upskilling.

According to Hidetsugu Nitta, Deputy Manager, Human Resources Group, Planning Section, Technology and Innovation General Headquarters, NTT Data: “When we were having face-to-face training some of our employees found it challenging to attend sessions as they were in very remote locations, far away from the office.

Thus, taking our trainings online allowed us to extend the opportunities we provided to a wider group of people. That is one of the benefits we got from COVID-19.” A health crisis was transformed into an opportunity, with an important lesson for the region: that a coordinated, strategic approach to upskilling and reskilling workers can help Asian economies rebound while leapfrogging into the future of work.

Paradoxically, even amid an economic crisis that could see up to seven percent of the workforce across Asia lose their jobs, businesses here have struggled to find qualified people in growth areas. In response to the pandemic, organizations compressed years’ worth of digital transformation into a few short months. The arrival of our “remote everything” future has only amplified the need for digital and technical skills. For instance, the shift to flexible work arrangements is expected to affect up to 1.5 billion jobs around the world within the next decade.[1]

At the same time, some 149 million new jobs in technical areas such as software development, cloud, cybersecurity, and more will be needed by 2025[2]. And then there are the so-called “tech-enabled” roles in every industry – from retail to manufacturing to education to healthcare – that require workers to master digital tools so they can collaborate, analyze data, and extract insights. Jobs will be increasingly enabled by fusing technology. The combination of talent and tools creates a “tech resiliency” that better equips an organization to respond to challenges.

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Forming a strategic response

Bridging the skills gap across Asia is a daunting challenge, one that requires a strategic response. We all have a responsibility to bring everyone into the digital future. We can start by addressing the demands of the evolving workforce through a three-pronged approach – Retain, Redeploy, and Reskill[3]. First and most immediately, governments need to Retain, that is, keep people in the workforce by using wage subsidies, social protections, and financial and tax relief. Many governments around Asia swiftly enacted such measures when the pandemic first hit, and countries such as Malaysia[4], Singapore[5], and Thailand[6], have pumped additional stimulus into their economies as the crisis has persisted.

Next, governments should also embrace midterm measures to rebalance labor markets thrown into upheaval by the pandemic. In this Redeploy phase, governments should guide public demand, build a safety net for gig workers, and direct efforts to teach high-value skills needed to cope with this burst of digital transformation. They can also encourage businesses to share employees, so that businesses with falling labor demand provide workers to those businesses experiencing shortages.

Lastly, governments must commit to a multiyear effort to Reskill the labor force. The focus should be on enabling lifelong learning, empowering people to be self-sustaining, and ensuring access to new, rewarding jobs. Online job-seeking and learning platforms can show what roles and skills are in demand and then deliver relevant classes to workers anywhere.

This year, the biggest job opportunities in Asia are for roles such as software engineers and business-development managers. There are also many entry-level opportunities for tech-enabled roles like secretarial, administrative, and customer-service positions.[7] Ensuring access to basic digital-skills training gives people who have lost their jobs the opportunity to transition into these new roles and industries.

Companies would also do well to invest in their own learning programs. A recent survey found that those companies in the Asia-Pacific that expect to recover from the pandemic in less than six months are also those that invest more in skilling compared to others[8]. It requires commitment by leaders in public and the private sector to prioritize giving people the resources and cultural environment they need to succeed and grow.

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Cultivating cross-sector collaboration

That points to another truth about navigating out of today’s crisis: no single party can solve the problem alone. To achieve sustained, inclusive progress in closing the skills gap, a renewed partnership among public, private, and non-profit stakeholders is required. These public-private partnerships (PPP) combine the scale and resources of government, the innovation and agility of business, and the passion and social mission of the non-profit world. Such PPP arrangements are used around the world to accomplish ambitious goals from building infrastructure to increasing social justice. They will be an essential element in bridging the skills gap across a continent as diverse and complex as Asia.

For example, over 1,000 low-income women from underserved communities in India recently attended Industrial Technology Institutes (ITIs) to attain Computer Operator and Programmer Associate certifications, as well as other essential skills needed to land jobs.

This was done in partnership with Microsoft and the Nasscom Foundation and now, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in India is looking at expanding the program more broadly. Similarly, in China, the Guanghua Foundation is reskilling 10,000 educators and provide 90,000 youth with the opportunity to learn computer science and digital skills.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced an initiative to help 25 million people worldwide gain new skills. In just three months, LinkedIn and GitHub have reached 10 million people globally, including close to 1.52 million here in Asia, with learning paths computer programmer, customer service, and data analyst skills in highest demand. Such initiatives across the region that strive for greater public-private partnerships are supporting the local workforces in acquiring digital skills and in turn, help increase the employability of people looking for work.

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Optimism over Asia’s unique advantages

The challenge is daunting. Fortunately, there is much cause for optimism. Asia possesses distinct advantages that can help quickly bridge the skills gap and speed economic recovery. First, Asia has a robust, young population. Nearly half the people here are Gen Z or Millennials. They are comfortable with digital technologies and are fast learners. A second advantage is that Asia’s many developing economies can leapfrog straight to the latest technologies.

We saw firsthand how mobile phones quickly overtook landlines in our home countries of India and China. Now, mobile, cloud, and other technologies can help services from banking to healthcare quickly spread from the few to the many. The shift to remote work also presents an amazing opportunity for workers here to compete anywhere in the world.

“Geography and physical proximity to the workplace may no longer determine who gets the job,” Amarjit Kaur, a partner at legal firm Withers Khattarwong in Singapore, wrote recently. “The talent market has shifted from being a local pond to become a global pool.”[9]

Closing the skills gap across Asia is an urgent task and is key to the region’s economic recovery and ongoing digital transformation. Every one of the tens of millions of jobs potentially lost this year is not just a number, but a human being.

A thoughtful strategic approach between public and private stakeholders to invest in human capital based on data and analytics, combined with Asia’s unique advantages, has the potential to spark significant professional growth for individuals and economic prosperity for all.

We should all embrace this mosaic of opportunities and help the people of Asia-Pacific emerge stronger, more resilient, and better off than before.







[7] LinkedIn data

[8] Microsoft source (Culture of Innovation research)


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