Unlocking the economic potential of Asian nations requires more than just one key. For the Asian Development Bank’s Strategy 2020, the five core strategies are: infrastructure, environment, regional cooperation and integration, finance sector development, and education. Shanti Jagannathan, Senior Education Specialist, Regional and Sustainable Development Department at the Asian Development Bank, explains some of the strategies behind human capital development in the Asia Pacific region.
It’s not just about providing access, but also turning education on its head.
There are so many sub-sectors of education that one can focus on: training for unskilled labor, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and higher academic education. Can you briefly explain where the Asian Development Bank is focusing its energies in terms of education?
Education is one of the five core areas of ADB’s operations. Education is one of the smaller areas, but it’s growing — the focus is increasingly towards post-secondary education — technical and vocational education and training as well as tertiary education. High-quality education can also help in achieving other developmental goals.
The common lingo is that developing countries must “upskill” the labor force, which is required for low-income countries to reach middle income and for middle income to reach high income level. However, “right skilling” is as important as upskilling. Ensuring the right mix of the work force is crucial for economies to remain competitive.
That said, large pools of unskilled labor or informal markets, which prevail in developing countries, are not good attributes if left unattended.
There often seems to be a stigma against vocational training. Should developing countries be focusing on practical education or higher education?
There is an overarching bias toward higher degrees and there is the ongoing problem of prestige with vocational training. At times, higher-order skills development is as good, if not better, than academic skills with regard to success in job markets. Policy makers need to blend the two in right proportions and match them to the needs of employers. ADB is supporting polytechnics in Indonesia that offer higher order technical training linked to industries identified in the economic masterplan.
The gap between the classroom and the workplace seems to be significant in a lot of fields. What are some examples of how Asia Pacific nations have addressed this issue?
Yes, Asia is suffering from a lot of this mismatch between what employers want and what training institutions can provide.
In Singapore, the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 recommended 3000 new “applied degree pathways by 2020.”
While Singapore also put technical education on the world map, this kind of reform is at the tertiary level. It’s about university education becoming less general and more oriented to the realities of applying education and training at the work place.
Skills development needs to become far more workplace oriented, and our projects seek to increase access to internships and apprenticeships. Australia has an extensive apprenticeship system, which helps bridge the pathways between education, training and the employers.
In Korea, the Meister Schools, which are vocationally oriented secondary schools, are predominantly oriented to practical training. These are premium schools, which train high achievers and amplify their prestige. They are well funded, with great opportunities for workplace training — two-thirds of the curriculum is practically oriented. These are the types of initiatives emerging economies can adapt to their contexts.
How do you think labor changing in an increasingly high-tech world?
Traditionally, if someone were working in a factory, they were considered labor class. But when you look at the manufacturing environment today, it’s based on IT and microtechnology. The worker on the floor is no longer a blue-collar worker; he is a grey-color worker who can manipulate hi-tech machines.
Some corporations, when they found that despite well-paying factory jobs, young people were not opting for them. They undertook awareness campaigns, factory exposure visits to change perceptions of working conditions. So we need to consider how to profile occupations better.
In the travel industry, we promote exotic tourist destinations, but if we are to attract high-quality talent into the industry, we need to profile the people and the occupations in that industry better.
You’ve talked about the workplace being a place not just for skills training, but also to develop ethics and values. Can you expand on that?
There is a crisis in terms of “soft skills,” which typically includes working in teams, time-management skills, ethics, self-discipline, self-motivation and so on. These are considered transferable skills that are not specific to an occupation and apply to all levels.
We’ve found that employers are crying out for these skills, and educational systems must really invest in developing them.
Productivity will be seriously important for Asia. It is really crucial for Asia to maintain its competitive strength, and to work effectively and efficiently. Education must be more interactive for students to piece this information together.
In terms of developing human capital in the travel and tourism industry, what are some challenges you see in ASEAN nations?
ASEAN is a mixed bag. You have Singapore, which is ranked number one in the world in terms of competitiveness. It outperforms many OECD countries in the knowledge economy index; then you have at the middle level Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam.
Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are at the lower end and the distance to Singapore is very stark.
The ASEAN economic integration of 2015 will strengthen economic opportunities and the tourism industry is expected to be a high growth sector. To realize the potential that exists, investing in infrastructure alone will not be sufficient, but human capital development is crucial. New and contemporary occupational profiles have to be developed to cater to various strands of the tourism industry.
The ADB has supported sustainable tourism development projects in the Greater Mekong Subregion. There is need for cooperation amongst countries to enable the free flow of skilled workers and the mutual recognition of qualifications – efforts are already underway to develop an ASEAN qualification framework and in fact we expect that the tourism industry could well pioneer the implementation of such mutual recognition. I think greater collaboration between ASEAN and APEC in the tourism sector would be valuable.
What kind of education and training solutions make sense for students in rural areas?
In large economies in particular, we need decentralized solutions.
There may be socioeconomic obstacles, so ADB projects often include stipends, training vouchers, readiness programs, and short-term training, so that they can gain access to training and jobs.
The revolution unleashed by online training has tremendous potential to completely transform the landscape.
Mobile technology has huge potential for developing Asia where even the most remote locations have access to mobiles. The increasing use of smartphones gives the ability to provide training and other job market related services that would be valuable for students in remote locations and from disadvantaged communities.
ICT-based solutions can connect classrooms and provide access to high-quality teaching and learning materials. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have taken the world by storm, although it is yet to be proven.
Digital technologies have powerful potential for the future. We believe they can be transformational in educational training. It’s not just about providing access, but also turning education on its head.
There is ample evidence of poor quality, didactic teachers who are poorly trained and who are not able to inspire students. We can use technology as a tool for more creativity in education. For instance, instead of installing machinery and equipment, simulation-based training using IT can be deployed; instead of pulling people out of their place of work for training, mobile-based performance support can be provided at the workplace; language training and skill upgrading is possible on mobiles and on Internet platforms for “anytime anywhere” learning.