Solving the skills conundrum

Author: PM Editorial | Date: 06 Jan 2016

How Asia can develop its workforce for sustainable economic growth

There are five crucial areas that governments in south and east Asia must focus on in order to develop the right skills for sustainable economic growth, according to a new report from global learning provider City and Guilds.
The ‘Sense and Instability’ report compares England’s current learning and development needs with those of several regions around the world, including Asia. It suggests a number of areas governments in the region should prioritise: system churn and constant change; institutional memory; target setting, unified qualifications frameworks; local and national investment priorities.
Singapore’s approach to lifelong learning is praised as a viable long-term plan in the face of ‘system churn and constant change.’ Despite the inevitable changes of a democratic system – including new politicians with new ideas about training the nation’s workforce – Singapore has “succeeded in tying skills development policy into economic development needs.” The report recommends that a country such as Myanmar, which is still developing its vocational education system, would benefit from adopting this approach straight away.
Remembering what has worked well, and not so well, regardless of who is running the country at the time is also important. One ruling party may be reluctant to admit that its predecessors’ learning and development policies worked well, but there is no point in trying something different just for the sake of change and pigheadedly making a mistake that has been made before.
The report identifies a need to “develop a collective institutional memory about what works best” and suggests that the National Skills Development Agency (NDSA) in India is a step in the right direction. This could also be done on a regional basis across the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Quantitative targets are helpful but must not be too high or overambitious, at the risk of damaging the quality of learning. In Vietnam, a target for 30 per cent of the workforce to have vocational qualifications by 2010 was not met; the Asian Development Bank estimated only 13 per cent had gained these qualifications. The City and Guilds report recommends countries “consider developing broader, more achievable targets, and that these are formulated under the advice of technical experts, rather than for political currency.” Politicians can be prone to grand promises, and unrealistic targets are not helpful to anyone.
Unified qualifications frameworks enable learners to move smoothly and easily between academic and vocational qualifications, says the report. Malaysia’s national qualification framework (NQF) is a highly developed and effective system that the other ASEAN members could learn from. If Malaysia shares its experience, an integrated system for the 10 ASEAN countries could be built. This level of cooperation is happening in the Middle East, where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is designing the Gulf Qualifications Framework for its member states.
Finally, says City & Guilds, when deciding on investment priorities for workforce training, parts of Asia face a very different set of challenges to the rest of the world. The large labour force migration to the Gulf region means that two countries on different continents could stand to benefit from “an open dialogue to ensure that the quantity and quality of migrant workers meets requirements.”
For example, if the UAE predicts it will need a lot of workers with a certain skillset, it could coordinate with countries such as India and Pakistan, where a large percentage of its labour force is derived. The countries where the workers originate from stand to benefit too, because a significant portion of money earned abroad is sent back to support families.