Asia must overhaul its education systems for the new reality of work

A student assembles a model aeroplane during an enrichment class at a secondary school in Singapore October 27, 2016.

In ASEAN countries, almost half the population is aged under 30. This is a huge opportunity - and an equally great challenge. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Christophe Duchatellier
Chief Executive Officer, Asia, Adecco Group
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on ASEAN

It’s a great time to live in Asia. Whereas other regions worry about demography, in ASEAN countries almost half the population is aged under 30. Unemployment is remarkably low, while youth unemployment stands at 13% (although admittedly there are sharp regional differences).

And Asian’s young people are tech-savvy. South-East Asia is the world’s fastest growing region for internet access, with nearly 125,000 new users expected to come online each day through to 2020. The region’s internet economy, including e-commerce, travel and online media, could grow to be worth at least $200 billion by 2025.

This could change the lives of millions throughout Asia. Just think about how hyperconnectivity can expand professional opportunities for talented people at both regional and global levels.

Never enough talent

Yet employers are crying out for even more talent. On average, 40% of employers globally state that they cannot find staff with the right skills, according to a recent survey. In Japan, this stands at 80%, and it’s a challenge in most other Asian countries as well.

As recruiters, we face this challenge every day, especially in “hot” sectors like engineering and IT. My teams say that when a good candidate walks in, they should be matched to a client company that very same day, as competition is so fierce and timing so crucial. It’s not just hiring: retention is also tough with millennials and Generation Zers. Newcomers to the labour market in Asia could have as many as eight jobs in their first decade of work; many move on after only a year with an employer, a very poor return on investment for the latter.

Shaping the skills for the present and future of work

This talent scarcity will worsen as technology develops. Automation and technology will create big transformations, with organizations becoming flatter and more interconnected. Lifelong learning and boosts to employability will become more important than fixed contracts, while competitiveness will come to be about a combination of skills rather than highly specialized ones. A multi-career has become the norm, with a shift from linear to “spiral” careers.

The bottom line? Education is paramount. Pure technical skills are no longer enough, and people are today expected to combine them with social and collaborative skills.

Above all, employees need to be able to “learn how to learn” – a talent that must be acquired early on. School systems must change from top-down rote learning to problem solving and social skills, developed through project-based learning and experiential opportunities. John Amos Comenius, who died in 1670 and is often described as the father of modern education, said the following: “If you tell kids, they will forget. If you show them, they will remember. If you involve them, they will learn.” Giving practical experience at a relatively early stage also ensures young people experience working life, clarify their career wishes and develop the soft skills that employers demand.

The way forward

Public-private partnerships are central to reforming educational systems to ensure they combine formal learning with vocational training and practical work experience. The tested apprenticeship systems of Germany and Switzerland are good examples. In these two countries, governments, education systems and employers work together to build the professional profiles needed to meet labour market needs.

Singapore provides a role model that’s closer to home for countries in Asia. In the annual Global Talent Competitiveness Index compiled by INSEAD and The Adecco Group, which ranks 118 countries according to their ability to develop, attract and retain talent, the city state has consistently ranked second thanks to its flexible labour market, extreme business friendly policies and, of course, its top quality and innovative schools, colleges and universities.

Singapore has long favoured designing social systems to drive the desired economic and societal change. The New Educational System of 1979 introduced multi-streaming geared to the diverse needs of the market and economic development. Subsequent reforms prioritized the knowledge economy, shifting learning from absorbing information to nurturing thinking skills by encouraging thematic study across disciplines, project-based learning and experiential opportunities.

Success is always achieved through collaboration. Employers must also do more. Programmes like the Global Apprenticeship Network, for example, combine the efforts of multinational companies, institutions and education systems to design and implement apprenticeship schemes that can work for different countries. Current and ongoing pledges by GAN’s 13 corporate direct members will positively impact over 9.3 million young people through 2020. Individual companies can also contribute: just take our own Adecco Way to Work, which in Asia provided several hundred internships and apprenticeships between 2013 and 2017.

From school age onwards

Beyond young people, the “multi-career” age has made life-long learning essential. That means we have to look beyond school to those already in the labour market. To remain competitive, companies and organizations require the best technology. But they should spend as much on retraining and upskilling. Here too Singapore may be a guide. Its training participation rate for resident workers aged between 15 and 64 rose to an all-time high of 42% in the year to June 2016.

Development and employment are a shared responsibility. Of course, systems such as those in Singapore and Switzerland were not built in a day, but their success represents the material proof that private-public partnerships, combining early age preparation with life-long learning and prioritizing upskilling, are key to foster inclusive growth and boost prosperity.

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Related topics:
ASEANFuture of WorkEducation
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