Commentary / World

Asia urgently needs greater mobility for skilled workers

by Yoko Ishikura and Demetrios G. Papademetriou

Special To The Japan Times

The Asian labor market is in the midst of a fundamental transformation. Advanced economies, as well as some emerging ones, are aging very rapidly, while high youth unemployment persists in developing economies, where population growth has been robust and is expected to continue to be so. Moreover, close to half of the current jobs may disappear due to advancements in robotics and AI (artificial intelligence), while new jobs will also emerge.

These two factors — an aging population and advances in robotics and AI — will trigger changes both in the type of skills that will be needed and where they will come from. Specifically, as new jobs that require new skills emerge, having “just-in-time” access to those skills will become increasingly important because it takes time for educational and training institutions to adapt their curricula, and produce people with new sets of skills.

The Global Survey by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs at the World Economic Forum is intended to identify the drivers of changing trends and disruptions affecting work, their implications for skills, and the adaptation strategies of global firms. Such firms, however, cannot resolve the impending skills mismatches on their own.

They must work together with governments to devise agile systems for the movement and leveraging of human capital. Mobility of various forms — such as mobility and job rotation within the firm, mobility (of skilled professionals, in particular) within the industry and across national boundaries — is indispensable to resolve the divergence between skills and jobs, as well as the gaps in labor force participation by old and young generations.

Mobility is also the issue on which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ efforts have been focusing — making it a good time to take stock of the lessons the ASEAN member states have learned from their efforts.

Progress in meeting the ASEAN Economic Community’s goal of facilitating movements by skilled professionals within the region by this December has been painfully slow. Three main reasons behind this sluggishness are highlighted in a forthcoming report by the Asian Development Bank and the Migration Policy Institute, the first product in a multi-year ADB-MPI project supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency that seeks to identify strategies to overcome obstacles to the freer movement of professionals within ASEAN.

First, professionals in the region typically find their skills and education underutilized — and undervalued — because their academic and professional qualifications are not easily recognized.

Second, professionals face restricted access to the ASEAN labor market as a result of national-level barriers, including constitutional requirements reserving certain jobs for nationals.

Lastly, many professionals themselves have limited interest in moving within the region due to cultural, linguistic and quality-of-life differences.

With a growing market of more than 600 million consumers and a combined gross domestic product of nearly $3 trillion, the ASEAN region stands to gain much from adopting a more coherent approach to facilitating skill mobility and thus draw out the full benefits of the human capital that mobile skilled workers bring with them.

In the absence of well-trained workforces, businesses cannot prosper, industries cannot be competitive, individuals cannot build lives that can set them on a course to opportunity, and investors, foreign and domestic, will not make additional investments.

Countries in Southeast Asia must thus think harder about what each can contribute to the region’s economic attractiveness and how, working together, they can build complementary physical and human capital infrastructures that can contribute to meeting ASEAN-wide economic growth and competitiveness goals.

Laying out an ambitious but realistic road map toward freer movement for the region’s high-skilled citizens over the next decade and beyond is thus of critical importance.

A two-pronged strategy is required. ASEAN member states need to cooperate more organically to remove unnecessary obstacles to recognizing the qualifications of professionals wishing to move and increase their access to the regional labor market. At the same time, ASEAN governments should invest systematically and deeply in national training and education systems that prepare workers in accordance with common, ASEAN-wide standards.

Developing and maintaining human capital at a competitive level requires sustained and multi-faceted efforts of all key stakeholders, particularly private industry, government and educational institutions. We all need to recognize the urgency of the task of leveraging human capital to increase competitiveness in the face of transformational changes in the global economy.

It is impossible to wait for all stakeholders to agree and act together, as is clear in the uneven efforts of the members of the ASEAN community. We need to identify, encourage and support pioneers in this pursuit, whether they are companies, cities, countries or regions.

Those who act first and learn from practice will benefit most. No “wait and see” approach will work.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University. Demetrios G. Papademetriou is president emeritus and distinguished senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which analyzes the movement of people worldwide.