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Upskilling: Digital transformation is economic transformation for all

In the Asia Vision Series features, we explore key industry trends and issues with our subject matter experts and visionaries. In part 2 of 3, Michelle Simmons – General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific – says building digital know-how in emerging countries is critical for economic and business transformation. She also looks at how today’s students and workers are gaining new skills to compete in the future.

Is digital transformation something to be feared or welcomed? Does it create or destroy jobs? These are big questions facing the modern world. And, how you might answer them probably depends on where you are on the planet.

In developed countries – where the march of digital disruption is fast eating away at well-entrenched occupations, sectors, and industries – there is soul searching and even trepidation. But in developing countries – where infrastructure and high-end legacy industries barely exist – there is much more hope, and even enthusiasm, for change, says Michelle Simmons, General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific.

“Technology is being embraced in these countries because it’s viewed as a way to transform economies, to transform businesses,” she says. “Digital transformation has the potential to empower millions of people to achieve more. Its potential for the region can be profound. Done right, digital transformation means economic transformation, and that means transformation for everyone.”

Emerging economies throughout the Asia Pacific have steadily grown over the years thanks to relatively cheap and low-skilled labor in agriculture and in low-level, export-focused manufacturing. This strategy has made them stronger economies, but it can only take so far. They now realize they must build technological capabilities so they can upgrade to have more productive, knowledge-based industries with knowledge-based workforces that are digitally literate.

The fundamental challenge of how to upskill workers digitally is more or less the same in developed and emerging economies. But in the latter “there’s not that fear of jobs being reduced. It’s about how do we make sure people, individuals, youth, have the skills for tomorrow’s jobs,” Michelle says.

Bridging that digital skills gap is a priority for economic development. And, tech companies – like Microsoft – can help.  Among the biggest cheerleaders for digital literacy are the region’s young people who hope to build meaningful careers in economies that traditionally offered few possibilities outside of a factory or a farm. “More than half of the world’s millennials reside in the Asia Pacific. And that’s a great opportunity if we can only tap into their capabilities, have them introduced to technology, (and) get access to technology.”

Adding to the importance of this goal are high youth unemployment rates in emerging Asian economies, which are estimated to be up to three times greater than the overall global rate. “When you have unskilled people and a high unemployed youth population, that’s a real problem for a lot of countries.

“So, we are working with a number of non-government organizations to help build the skills of these youth, to build their digital skills. We know that today, about 50 percent of jobs require technology skills. Within the next three years, that’s going to jump to more than 75 percent. So we’re working to help build the skills that employers need to expand their companies.”

In Sri Lanka, decades of civil strife have now given way to sustained economic growth. In this period of calm and reconstruction, 24-year-old Prabhath Mannapperuma leads a team of techie volunteers teaching digital skills to rural and underprivileged children. They use the micro:bit, a tiny programmable device that makes coding fun. “Using a keyboard to type in code is not interesting for kids,” says Mannapperuma, an IT professional and tech-evangelist, who is determined to inspire a new generation.

Upskilling is also a priority in one of Asia’s poorest countries, Nepal. Here, Microsoft has launched an ambitious digital literacy training program that is transforming lives. Santosh Thapa lost his home and livelihood in a massive 2015 earthquake and struggled in its aftermath to start again in business. Things turned around after he graduated from a Microsoft-sponsored course that taught him some digital basics, which he now uses daily to serve his customers and stay ahead of his competitors.

Often women are the most disadvantaged in the skills race. For instance in Myanmar, only 35 percent of the workforce is female. Without wide educational opportunities, most women have been relegated to the home or the farm. But times are changing as the economy opens up after decades of isolation. “Women in Myanmar are at risk of not gaining the skills for the jobs of the future, and so we are helping to develop the skills of young women, and that’s been an exciting effort,” says Michelle.

The team at Microsoft Philanthropies has partnered with the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation in its Tech Age Girls program. It identifies promising female leaders, between the ages of 14 to 18, and provides them with essential leadership and computer science skills to be future-ready for the jobs of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

The goal is to create a network of 100 young women leaders in at least five locations throughout Myanmar with advanced capacity in high-demand technology skills. One of these future leaders is Thuza who is determined to forge a career in the digital space. “There seems to be a life path that girls are traditionally expected to take,” she says. “But I’m a Tech Age Girl and I’m on a different path.”

In Bangladesh, Microsoft and the national government have come together to teach thousands of women hardware and software skills. Many are now working at more than 5,000 state-run digital centers that encourage ordinary people to take up technology for the business, work, and studies. It is also hoped that many of the women graduates of the training program will become digital entrepreneurs themselves.

These examples are undeniably encouraging and even inspirational. But Michelle is clear on one point: Digital skills development is more than just meaningful and impactful philanthropic work. It is also a hard-headed, long-term business strategy and a big investment in human capital.

Microsoft wants its customers to grow and push ahead with digital transformation, she says. And to do that, they need digitally skilled workers. “This is about empowering individuals, and also about enabling businesses to fill gaps in order for them to actually compete globally … by developing the skills, we can develop the economy.”

Catch up on part 1 of this interview series where Michelle Simmons discusses why digital transformation in emerging markets in Asia is like running a marathon. Read the third and final installment of this interview series here, where Michelle Simmons will share more on how technology is equalizing the playing for businesses in emerging countries and enabling them to internationalize. 

Enjoy reading more Asia Vision Series interviews with our other thought leaders and subject matter experts here.

Michelle Simmons
General Manager, Southeast Asia New Markets, Microsoft Asia Pacific

Based in Singapore, Michelle leads Microsoft’s business across nine countries that make up some of Asia Pacific’s fastest growing markets including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Before her current role, Simmons was the senior director of Marketing & Operations for Microsoft Korea. In this capacity, she was responsible for business operations, marketing, customer satisfaction, and driving overall business priorities for the Korean market.

Geoff Spencer
Digital Content Editor, Communications, Microsoft Asia

Geoff has worked extensively in Asia as a reporter, correspondent and editor for The Associated Press, The Sydney Morning Herald, and MSN, as well as the US-based Asia Society. He has covered a wide variety of big stories over the years, including the Asian financial crisis, the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, East Timor’s independence struggle, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks in New York. His journalistic interests are now focused on how the world is changing through digital transformation.