To prep Asian workers for the global labour market, start with education

Lee Jong-Wha says the rapidly changing market requires Asian governments to put special emphasis on vocational training, to ensure the next generation is equipped with the relevant skills

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 3:46pm

Asia is facing a human-capital challenge. Over the past three decades, significant gains in workforce size and quality helped Asia become a hub of global supply chains. But with workers increasingly unable to meet the demands of the labour market, the region’s remarkable development success could be derailed.

Asia has plenty of educated young workers. But, at a time of industrial upgrading and technological sophistication, the knowledge and skills gained in school are often insufficient. As a result, youth unemployment, underemployment and job dissatisfaction are on the rise.

Throughout Asia, a significant share of workers feel they are over- or undereducated for their jobs, while employers often lament a lack of qualified graduates.

Despite regional variations, some weaknesses in policies and systems designed to boost skills development are endemic. Among the most damaging is the inability to impart the right skills through pre-employment and on-the-job training.

In India, for example, only 0.8 per cent of students, on average, participated in formal technical and vocational education at the secondary level from 2006 to 2010.

Moreover, across Asia, a lack of involvement by private companies further undermines the ability of vocational education and training systems to respond adequately to changes in the labour market, thereby reducing graduate employability. In Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, less than a quarter of companies conduct formal in-house training. A dearth of well-qualified teachers and ineffective governance exacerbates the situation.

Governments across Asia must devise ways to transform their education and training systems, so workers acquire the skills they need to boost growth and productivity. Most important, governments must make skills acquisition a central feature of national development policies.

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In many Asian countries, formal education is often overly academic or simply low-quality. To be effective, secondary and tertiary schools must produce graduates with both soft skills, such as communication, and relevant technical skills. Given that the challenge is shared across Asia, governments should work together. More knowledge sharing and talent exchanges would be beneficial. In the coming decades, Asia will continue to contribute a large number of workers to the global labour market. How well trained they are will be a key factor influencing not only Asia’s trajectory, but also that of the entire global economy.

Lee Jong-Wha is professor of economics and director of the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University. Copyright: Project Syndicate