by Charlotte Trueman, Cristina Lago

How CIOs in Southeast Asia can close the tech skills gap

Dec 19, 2019
CareersCIOIT Skills

Businesses in ASEAN must adapt to overcome a technology talent deficit in the next decade.

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Credit: antoniokhr / Getty

The technology industry is experiencing a crisis. By 2030, experts predict that the technology sector will experience a labour-skills shortage that will reach 4.3 million workers.

Across the world, tech companies are waking up to this realisation, putting time and money into a whole plethora of initiatives designed to help encourage more people to pursue careers in the technology sector and improve the retention rates of those they already employ.

Countries in Southeast Asia are also expected to feel the impact of skilled labour shortage within the next two decades. Indonesia is high on the list of countries expected to be most affected if prevention measures are not taken, with a US$21.8 billion impact just within the technology, media, and telecommunications sector.

“For Southeast Asia organisations, the second highest ranked disruptive effect to enterprises is about finding the right talent,” says Adrian Lee, senior director and analyst, tech product managers, at Gartner.

In a part of the world that has so far raised 10 unicorn startups, it’s never been more important to continue fostering the talent on offer from the largely young populations and help reduce the impact of the skills deficit.

What are the biggest talent challenges facing Southeast Asia?

Although each of the 10 countries that make the ASEAN bloc has different workplace characteristics which require differing skills sets, one of the biggest challenges facing the region as a whole with regard to the skills gap is the future impact of disruptive technologies.

“There are a number of challenges in the IT space due to the sudden and broad uptake of new technologies for which there are insufficient skills within the markets today,” says Simon Piff, vice president of security practice at IDC Asia-Pacific.

“Technologies such as artificial intelligence, analytics, distributed ledger (blockchain) are relatively new areas that are in demand by a range of businesses but for which the existing skill base does not exist at scale,” he says.

Meanwhile, “Multi-hybrid cloud management and security are areas where the technology has evolved faster than the skill sets, and as such there is a gap in the knowledge of many incumbents in these roles and an unclear pipeline of fresh graduates to fill the gaps.”

Low-skilled jobs and traditionally less technical industries like tourism dominate the working landscape in these countries, meaning that as automation becomes smarter and more efficient, these will be some of the first jobs to go.

Rising levels of youth unemployment and perceived lack of prospects has led to many Southeast Asian countries experiencing an exodus of youth and potential future talent to other continents across the globe. Consequently, governments in the region are now under huge pressure to ensure citizens that do stay put are properly equipped to work the jobs of the future.

The first, and arguably the most important, hurdle that needs to be overcome is the weaknesses in current STEM education systems.

“We are moving to an era of accelerated innovation, and this requires a new skill set that must be endorsed by senior leadership, nurtured thought the organisation and enabled at the ground level, but across these areas many of the attitudes and skills in ASEAN need to evolve, and this has to start with the hiring process,” says Piff.

What can CIOs in the region do to close the skills gap?

Talks have already taken place amongst high profile business leaders from the region about the best ways to tackle this growing issue. Noting the inevitability of a global fight for talent, a key proposal put forward has been the need for competitive salaries within sectors such as cybersecurity.

Those from Southeast Asia who are in the small minority of graduates leaving education with the necessary workforce qualifications are unlikely to remain in the region if their talents can earn them more money elsewhere.

Furthermore, the emergence of Industry 4.0 is providing the region with the much-needed excuse to implement initiatives that focus specifically on reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce to ensure they have the required talent when Industry 4.0 reaches its maturity.

Although progress is being made, there’s still a long way to go before Southeast Asia can be confident that they’ll be able to minimise the skills deficit to manageable levels.

In the meantime, cross-country cooperation and the continued adoption of industry-led programmes are a must to ensure the region is able to enact both meaningful and long-term changes.

Piff suggests that CIOs in the region should consider how “learning from failure” can be embedded in the environment with limited risk to the business and the employee. Rather than punishing employees for their mistakes, CIOs could leverage those situations to allow professional growth of their staff. Innovation demands are coming from the management team, and whilst the role of the CIO has long been to mitigate IT risks, this is at odds with the perception of innovation.

“At the same time, an honest evaluation of what can be done internally by the existing team versus what should be delivered by a business partner or external party has to be documented and shared with management. Outsourcing innovation may not be palatable, but if you are unable to innovate, some part of the process needs an injection of external inspiration.”

He adds that traditional approaches of education programmes and reskilling might address some of the more technical roles, but says CIOs should take a more realistic approach to hiring.

“Restrictive job descriptions and onerous demands for qualifications, skills and experience can all undermine a good hire,” says Piff. “We are seeing more often that a person’s ‘job’ is in fact a series of roles, some of which are repeated, some of which are not, and so moving to a more open approach to hiring that focuses on the outcome, more than the process, may indeed be a more efficient approach.”