Equipped with AI and technology skills, women across Southeast Asia find new career opportunities 

Woman in a headscarf on a scooter

Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia.

Technology has become so ubiquitous in the workplace that most workers are now expected to have basic digital skills, while those who work in technology jobs need to constantly up their game.

AI is only making that imperative more urgent.

Ninety percent of leaders across Southeast Asia say their employees will need new skills to be prepared for the growth of AI, according to Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index report released in May of last year, which surveyed a total of 31,000 workers globally. The report surveyed six of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Microsoft announced today plans to equip 2.5 million people in the ASEAN region with AI skills by 2025. The training will be delivered with the help of governments, non-profits, businesses and community.

The initiative builds on a slate of existing Microsoft skilling programs in the region, which have already helped many land jobs or make career shifts, particularly women, who continue to be under-represented in the tech sector.

Here are some of their stories.

Jidapa Nitiwirakun, 21, Thailand (Skills for Jobs)

When Jidapa Nitiwirakun was around one year old, her mother noticed she wasn’t learning to walk. A doctor diagnosed her with muscular dystrophy.

At 21, she’s been able to land a job despite the limitations of living with the condition, including continuing to lose muscle strength each year. In September of last year, she joined the human resources department of Toyota Tsusho’s Thai headquarters, living independently and working remotely from her home in Pattaya, on Thailand’s coastal Chonburi province. The company is the trading arm of the Japanese automotive giant.

Woman in a wheelchair smiling
Jidapa Nitiwirakun, Thailand. Photo by John Brecher for Microsoft. 

When she was growing up, Nitiwirakun said, “I had many dreams” – from owning a bakery to being a Thai-Japanese interpreter, since she was a fan of anime.

While at the Pattaya Redemptorist Technological College for People with Disabilities, she was part of Microsoft’s Skills for Jobs program, which teaches basic digital skills to those looking to get a job, a promotion or even a career change. She studied digital skills for business, from coding to PowerPoint to AI. She interned with Microsoft Thailand, which boosted her confidence as she was roped in to train employees as well as clients to use Power BI. “I was excited and nervous,” she said.

A visit from recruiters from Toyota Tsusho led to a full-time job as an administrative officer in their human resources department last year. She’s currently working on a project to track the company’s carbon footprint, using Power BI, and does the graphic design for internal communications. She uses Dall-E from OpenAI to generate images, saving time. She uses AI tools at work, to help with formulas for analytics on Power BI and to summarize information when searching on the web.

She continues to volunteer at her old college, “driving” her mechanized wheelchair back and forth from her apartment 10 minutes away.

Each month, she gives money to her father, mother and grandmother and helps to pay for her brother’s university fees. “I am very proud of myself that I can financially support my family,” she said.

Assoc Prof. Dr. Hasyiya Karimah Adli, 37, Malaysia (Code; Without Barriers)

A few years ago, Hasyiya Karimah Adli was an academic specializing in solar energy when she had a realization: Malaysia gets lots of sun but it wasn’t being harnessed enough.

To scale solar farms, Hasyiya – a chemist with a PhD specializing in materials engineering – had to turn to computing. In 2021, she joined Code; Without Barriers, Microsoft’s initiative to close the gender gap in cloud, AI and digital technology.

“I fell in love with AI and IoT and started to upskill,” she said.

Today, Hasyiya, 37, is the founding dean of the Faculty of Data Science and Computing at University Malaya Kelantan, a rural state in northeastern peninsular Malaysia. The first cohort of seven data scientists will graduate in March 2025.

Woman in a headscarf at a conference
Dr Hasyiya Karimah Adli, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Dr Hasyiya.

Demand is soaring for the program. At the most recent intake in September last year, 2000 applicants competed for 90 places. Hundreds more have taken short courses online.

Courses are based on Microsoft curricula, and the faculty draws students from across the university. Business students see how data analytics and AI can help them run future startups. Aspiring vets and farmers want to know how data from sensors can help them monitor the temperature of animals or how AI can predict water and energy use.

As one of just a handful of female technology deans in Malaysia, Hasyiya wants young women to know the field doesn’t have to be dominated by men, or even by those with a technology background.

“I keep telling them I also am not from IT,” she says. “If they have passion, there is no need to doubt themselves.”

Shelin Puspa Arum, 25, Indonesia (Skills for Jobs)

Shelin Puspa Arum’s parents run a stall selling bakso – meatball soup – out of their home in Mojokerto, East Java. During COVID-19 lockdowns, customers stayed home and the stall almost went under.

To help her parents out, the university student looked for work and stumbled on free digital training under the Microsoft Skills for Jobs initiative. She did some basic courses – Excel, Word, PowerPoint and data analysis. Armed with those certificates, she landed a job in mid-2023 as a quality control officer for a company that imports a range of goods from e-cigarettes to Halloween costumes.

Arum, now 25, is in her final year as a history major at the State University of Malang, studying remotely. She continues to work full-time while completing her thesis.

Woman in a headscarf sitting on a couch smiling
Shelin Puspa Arum, Indonesia. Photo by John Brecher for Microsoft.

She uses Excel to analyze quality control data and create charts, exporting the tables to Word.

If she forgets a formula for Excel, she uses ChatGPT from OpenAI, which she learned from her friends at college. She wants to explore other areas, for example, digital marketing and product audit, and thinks her AI skills will help her move up the company by helping her learn about these new areas.

Her parents’ bakso stall is doing better, now that people are out and about again. Still, she continues to give 50 percent of her income to the family, including paying fees for her younger sister’s final year of high school. “It’s not a burden,” she said. “I feel happy to contribute to my family financially. My parents did not ask me, but I took the initiative and I feel happy I can provide for my parents.”

Hidayah Ibrahim, 41, Malaysia (Skills for Jobs)

A year ago, Hidayah Ibrahim was working as a kindergarten teacher on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. She had only heard of AI in the context of a popular movie by that title.

Hidayah, 41, had worked stints in customer service, in marketing and at a restaurant. She was a schoolteacher for a while, then a stay-at-home spouse before divorce sent her out into the workforce again, this time as a kindergarten teacher. “I’ve had my ups and downs in life,” she said.

A group of people looking at laptops
Hidayah Ibrahim teaching a class on digital skills in Malaysia. Photo by John Brecher for Microsoft.

She loved teaching children but was frustrated to be earning below minimum wage. In that job, she rarely used a computer, except maybe to play a video for the kids to watch.

A friend told her about Skills for Jobs. She signed up at a nearby community center, where she learned to use Microsoft 365 tools, such as Word, Excel, Teams and more. She also learned prompt engineering for generative AI tools.

That was enough to land her a job at a construction firm, at close to double what she made teaching kindergarten. As the sole administrative staff at a construction storage facility, she handles documentation for claims, overtime and paid leave for the staff. She often turns to an AI copilot to help her do things she doesn’t know how to do, and generally works faster, for example, to create charts and summarize data. “It helps me solve clerical work,” she said. She likes her job and says she sees herself staying till she retires.

Saran Hansakul, 38, Thailand (Code; Without Barriers)

When pandemic lockdowns shut the Bangkok silver jewelry store, AKE AKE Thailand, where Saran Hansakul worked as a brand and IT manager, she knew her job was in jeopardy.

Hansakul saw on social media that Microsoft was offering free certification in cybersecurity, AI and data as part of its Code; Without Barriers initiative. She remembers thinking to herself: “This is the only way to survive 2020.”

Woman speaking into a mic
Saran Hansakul, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Saran.

One of the first things she did with her newfound knowledge was to take her company paperless based on what she learned about data security. She remembers when there were piles of paper on her boss’ desk and tacked on notice boards. “There were many risks to just misread, make mistakes or lose confidential information,” she said.

She also weaned employees off using instant messaging for business, which by mixing work and personal texts at all hours, risked burning employees out. Employees began using Microsoft 365, including Teams, instead for collaboration, which is also more secure.

Next up, she’s working with a Microsoft partner to use Azure AI Studio to build a Copilot to help shoppers. That project is pending budget approval.

“Thai customers like to chat,” she said. If a customer shares a picture of a celebrity wearing a piece of jewelry, the AI tool can suggest similar pieces. It could also translate for the many Chinese tourists who have flooded into Thailand now that borders have reopened. What started as a desperate bid to upskill has also introduced Hansakul to a wide community of women in technology. As social media administrator for Thai Cy Sec, which organizes events and monthly online meetings, she’s seen members land new jobs with higher wages, “changing their lives.”