Skills for the future: not as technical as you think

By Deborah France-Massin, Director of the Bureau for Employers' Activities at the International Labour Organization (ILO)

News | 30 April 2018
Deborah France-Massin, Director of the Bureau for Employers' Activities (ILO)
It seems not a day passes without an announcement of a major technological innovation-from driverless cars to robots serving food in restaurants. It is in the workplace that technology is having an increasingly transformative impact. New and possibly disruptive technology such as 3D manufacturing and retail drone deliveries are changing the nature of our workplaces. This technology presents all kinds of opportunities. New sectors will emerge. New jobs will emerge. Moreover, technology presents great opportunities to get rid of dangerous or repetitive tasks. It is estimated that at least a quarter of jobs in Southeast Asia may be automated in the next decade or two. While this may sound daunting at first, the automation of jobs is not a new phenomenon, as technology has always been affecting work. It replaces, changes, improves and creates jobs. For example, if you currently work in the mobile phone or social media industry, then your job did not exist 15 years ago.

Disruptive nature

Although technology can create new jobs and improve the working conditions of others, it is nonetheless also a disruptive force. Lower-skilled jobs in labor-intensive sectors will be increasingly displaced by technology that is cheaper and more accessible. This is a particular concern for the nine million people in Southeast Asia who work in the textiles, clothing and footwear sectors. The majority of these vulnerable workers are young women. As a result of such technological change, Southeast Asian countries are unable to follow the mass employment manufacturing model pursued by Japan, Korea and China. That is, moving workers first from the farm, to the factory, and then finally into higher value services jobs. As technology replaces much of the labor-intensive factory work, people are thus unable to move from the farm to other sectors. The standard development route is no longer feasible and countries that currently compete on low-wage labor need to reposition themselves. Price advantage is no longer enough.

STEM and soft skills

To address job displacement, Southeast Asian countries have had a renewed focus on skills development. Specifically, skills development in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). However, this will present a challenge in the region as the participation rate in STEM courses is low compared to other regions. In addition, participation of female students in STEM subjects is particularly low. In the Philippines, STEM take-up is lower than the Asean average for both men and women. Enrollment in STEM courses among Filipino men is at 18 percent, while for Filipino women it sits at 10 percent. This is a major concern as employers in the region are now starting to look for workers with strong STEM backgrounds. In parallel with this high demand for people with STEM skills, there is also a case that 'soft skills' or 'people skills' will be increasingly sought after. To thrive in this new world, young people will increasingly need soft skills. These include skills in leadership, communication, creativity, innovation, and organization-skills required to collaborate with colleagues, to adapt to change, to empathize with end users, to inspire an audience, to learn new skills. While there may be a new emphasis on soft skills in the future, we will, of course, still need graduates with technical skills in electronics, engineering and science. But maybe not as many as we think.