Skillset lack impeding Asean youth
The global pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of young people in Asean in terms of their skills and entry to the future of work. In addition, their access to new types of skillsets required to perform a certain job function is limited due to lack of exposure to opportunities, financial barriers and insufficient time for upskilling and apprenticeships.
The trend is worrying since the future of the region is determined by the youth (aged 15 to 34), who constitute 34% or around 223 million of the total population in the 10 member countries of Asean.
Realising the importance of their role and under the Cambodian chairmanship, Asean declared 2022 as the Year of Asean Youth. Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the 2022 Chair of Asean, had pledged that it is his country's priority to "strengthen the development of human resources to respond to the needs on the ground for community building, promote the participation of women and youth in building and maintaining peace, and develop an inclusive social protection system".
While youth are holding a prominent role in determining the future of the region, the unemployment rate for young workers (below 34 years old) in Asean was already high before the pandemic -- 8.9% in 2019, against an adult unemployment percentage at 1.3%. The Covid pandemic makes the figure worse; total unemployment among the younger population reached 11.3% in 2021.
This suggests around 25.4 million youth in the region were left unemployed during the most tightened movement restrictions due to the outbreak of the deadly Delta variant of Covid-19.
As a result, many young workers, many also studying while working, have lost their jobs and income, and as a result have had to halt their education -- the dire situation the International Labour Organization (ILO) described as a "triple shock".
In this period of time, working hours in Asean dropped dramatically by 8.4%, equal to 24 million full-time workers assuming a 48-hour work week and school-to-work transition was heavily disrupted leaving more than 15 million new university and school graduates from the 10 Asean member countries unable to start their career journey.
Not only did young workers encounter a tumbling employment market, the landscape of work, study and living life in general also changed dramatically. Lockdown rushed people, workers and especially students, to digital technology as a safe medium for communication and transaction. A study shows in the pandemic's early outbreak, internet usage surged by between 50% and 70%.
Despite the heavy use of internet, Asean youth may not have sufficient skills for emerging jobs.
According to LinkedIn's "Jobs on the Rise 2021 Report", 42 out of 67 offered positions required verified digital proficiency -- such as the ability to perform digital marketing skills, operate Microsoft Office, manage cloud computing and setting up digital communications tools and other internet-related services. Further, 12 positions require advanced digital skills -- namely that job candidates be proficient in programming, coding, data science and analysis or UI/UX.
However, digital proficiency among Asean youth might not be enough for job positions that require advanced skills. For example, 47.8% of youth have either "none" or "low" basic digital skills proficiency -- meaning that nearly one out of two youths in Asean cannot adequately perform the basic functions of work software, according to figures by the Asean Foundation and Google.org on Youth Job Market and Skills Demand for the Future. Much worse, the same report provides the alarming statistic that nearly three-quarters of youths (72.7%) have "none" or "low" advanced digital skills.
Lacking much-needed digital skillsets, these young people seek a way forward by becoming "self-employed" or "entrepreneurs". The study further reveals 35.3% of young people seek to be entrepreneurs, the top on the list followed by a career in government (26.2%) and then media communication (20.6%). Only 18.2% of youth are aspiring to work in the tech sector.
Regardless of their career choices, there is no question that digital skillsets such as online marketing, finch and coding as well as digital literacy -- knowledge of data privacy protection, are fundamental for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) which enable these "entrepreneurs" to scale up their businesses and make their ventures sustainable.
It is noteworthy that having digital skills without digital literacy opens the door to rampant digital fraud. It needs to be said that two Asean countries fall within the top 20 countries affected most by scam calls, according to a Truecaller report in 2020.
This skills mismatch and employment crisis among the young people should not be ignored. Asean governments and private entities must join hands to prepare better pathways for youth in the region.
The declaration of 2022 as the Year of Asean Youth should not be a missed opportunity. Instead, it should be a terrific chance for Asean to execute its commitment under the Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework's (ACRF) Broad Strategy 2 on Strengthening Human Security in order to promote 21st-century skills.
Dio Herdiawan Tobing is the Founder of LOKA Group and Asean Foundation's Lead Researcher on Youth Job Market and Skills Demand for the Future Study (2021-2022), a project funded by Google.org.
- Asean youth