The ability to communicate in English, which has become the preferred language of government and business in a world shaped by the twin forces of globalisation and technology, can provide youth from Southeast Asia access to a 21st century career and the opportunity to be a part of the region’s incredible growth story.
As the world enters a new decade in the shadow of the pandemic, optimism endures about the role Southeast Asia will play in the global economic recovery.
Driving this revival will be the millions of new jobs created in the services sector – which includes industries such as business process outsourcing, travel and tourism, hospitality, education and healthcare – as well as the region’s burgeoning digital economy.
And English is the key that the region’s youth can use to access these opportunities and build a successful career for themselves.
Why employers seek English language proficiency
In an increasingly globalised world, where nearly two billion people speak the language at varying levels of proficiency, English has become the lingua franca for conducting business. Even several governments across ASEAN recognise English as one of their official languages. Unsurprisingly, most multinational corporations operating in the region require their employees to be fluent in the language.
As Simon Young, Pearson Asia’s BTEC Portfolio Manager, notes: “English has become a key skill for communicating in business in any role. So, in countries such as [those in Southeast Asia] where you might see a strong local workforce, the interaction with other divisions does require a strong ability to communicate in English. English has become the global communication medium.”
English is also essential to master the top transferable skills of the 21st century – teamwork and collaboration, negotiation skills and digital literacy, to name a few – that have come to be seen as necessary to help individuals become more attractive and valuable to employers and climb up the ranks in a modern, fast-evolving workplace.
Consider teamwork and collaboration: Employees who are fluent in English can become valued members of a global team thanks to their ability to communicate well with colleagues and managers, and negotiate effectively with clients and other stakeholders. These skills give them a natural edge over others less adept in the language when being considered for a new job or promotion.
While few doubt the need for fluency in English when it comes to employability and career progression, it’s important to understand that there are different aspects of the language that learners must focus on depending on their chosen professions and career goals.
Academic English is ideal for teaching and the world of research where scholars are required to author essays and papers presenting cogent arguments about their area of expertise. Business English, as the name suggests, is better suited for the corporate environment, enabling you to compose official emails, draft reports and deliver presentations. Real-world English is for communicating socially with everyone around you, including colleagues, bosses and business partners as well as friends and family.
The key question for learners to consider, according to Dr Tran Huong Quynh, Head of English Linguistics Division, Faculty of English at Hanoi National University of Education, is: “Do you need English for your jobs, or for socialising and communicating daily after work? Because each of these skills focuses on one aspect of English that allows learners need to use English appropriately in different settings.”
If you were ordered on a mission to travel back in time to tell an office worker from the ‘90s what their day-to-day will be like in 2020, you would be laughed out of their cubicle, and then escorted past the watercooler and by the stationery storeroom on your way out. This imaginary worker from the dialup internet slash paper-based era would not be able to fathom how their job could be done from anywhere not named the office.
And yet, to be fair to the imaginary worker, just one year ago none of us would have thought that our future morning commutes would be a different kind of door-to-door journey: we've ditched public transport and traffic congestion for a short stroll down the hallway to our makeshift home offices. From video conference platforms, to a greater trust and reliance on cloud-based technology, and an adjustment to working remotely on the fly, organisations (and their employees) have made it work.
Organisations and their employees have proven their resilience
According to Microsoft, the early stages of the pandemic saw the daily record for meeting minutes obliterated — their previous record was 900 million meeting minutes logged on March 16, and that number ballooned to 2.7 billion meeting minutes on March 31, a staggering 200% increase in a matter of 15 days. This data may come as no surprise given the global working from home policies implemented by human resource (HR) teams; however, it demonstrates how agile organisations had to be to ensure they could continue to do business during unprecedented times.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated a whole catalogue of underlying trends, such as artificial intelligence, big data and automation. The pandemic has been more of an agent for hurrying along trends that were going to happen anyway, rather than a force of sheer disruption. The effect of the pandemic on our ways of working has brought about some HR challenges for the new normal as it pertains to finding and nurturing employable talent.
Nurturing talent is proving to be a stubborn challenge
It’s now more important than ever to identify individuals who can demonstrate the abilities and traits that enable them to work effectively in the new normal. According to Pearson research, organisations are struggling to find candidates to fill job vacancies, as well as to effectively evaluate the skill sets of candidates. Additionally, jobseekers are finding themselves in a career progression conundrum: they’re finding that they’re overqualified, under-skilled, or in some cases, both.
The research found that human resource and learning and developing professionals are focused on identifying what the impact of the changing world is on their organisation and the skill structure of the workforce, which involves understanding (and identifying) skill gaps. According to the data, 57% of organisational needs are understanding how the pandemic has impacted the structure of teams, ways of working and overall organisational design, and 33% of attention will be directed at reskilling the workforce.
The new ways of working have made soft skills, such as critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration and communication, more valuable than ever before. In addition, and while they’re deemed critical in today’s landscape, some of the core soft skills are indeed a skill gap among jobseekers and today’s workers. Critical thinking and complex information processing are two soft skills that are sought after by industry, but are lacking in the talent pool.
According to Pearson research, these are the following top 10 skills in demand in order of priority, as deemed by organisations:
Adaptability and continuous learning (38%)
Critical thinking and decision making (34%)
Complex information processing and interpretation (31%)
Project management (29%)
Leadership and managing others (27%)
Basic digital skills (25%)
Advanced IT skills and programming (25%)
Quantitative and statistical skills (22%)
Advanced data analysis and mathematical skills (22%)
Entrepreneurship and initiative taking (20%)
Many HR professionals are considering online tools and services to address the skill gaps and to assess their immediate (and future) organisational needs. Activities such as workshops, e-learning solutions and advisory services are being increasingly leveraged to reskill and upskill workforces as form of on-the-job education.
While technical skills have long been recognised as the key to a successful career, soft skills such as critical thinking are increasingly becoming essential to thrive in the modern workplace.
In emerging markets such as Thailand and Vietnam, where education is evolving to align with the knowledge economy, it is more important than ever for learners to understand and pursue these soft skills, which while challenging to learn will serve them for life both professionally and personally.
Critical thinking, in particular, transcends technical skills and job types, says Anisa Zulfiqar, Business Development Manager at Pearson Asia. Regardless of the technical requirements of a job or occupation, nearly all require some form of problem solving, creativity, decision making, organisation skills and strategic thinking. And critical thinking helps with all of those.
But while this soft skill is vitally important to success for both students and professionals, the very concept can be difficult to grasp. So how do you explain it?
“Critical thinking is the ability to look at a situation logically and understand it from multiple perspectives while separating facts from opinions. It involves the ability to question assumptions so that you can make a logical decision based on all the available information and an evaluation of the facts,” Anisa says. “Put simply, critical thinking is the ability to make good decisions.”
Enhancing success in the classroom, workplace and beyond
This ability is crucial to nearly every occupation, especially those in the knowledge economy which puts a premium on human capital, and tech-intensive manufacturing, or Industry 4.0, as it has come to be known. In a survey of 1,200 different professions listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net website, 900 called for critical thinking as a required skill.
Anisa gives the example of a nurse, who must use critical thinking to care for a patient whose condition may be changing rapidly. “You need to accurately assess the information that’s at hand, think in a logical manner, question any assumptions and make the right decision for the patient’s wellbeing.”
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Pearson has conducted a number of studies that show good critical-thinking skills are highly correlated to performance in a variety of jobs, as well as academic success, Anisa says.
Countries like Vietnam and Thailand are ideally placed to shift their educational priorities and equip their youth with the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly digital world.
The world of work is changing, and it is up to all stakeholders – students, educational institutions and government authorities – to identify and adapt to the latest trends in order to prepare learners and furnish them with the skills needed in the workplaces of the future.
Across the region, the workforce is adequately peopled, and projected to grow at a steady clip but a shortage of skills is in danger of holding Southeast Asian economies back, Pearson research shows. Hard skills, like technical abilities, and soft skills such as communication, coupled with a willingness to learn throughout one’s career, are crucial to closing the skills gap and enabling Southeast Asians to compete on an equal footing in a global playing field.
The students who are choosing what and how to study today will be entering the job market in the 2030s – and it is a world full of unknowns. According to a market report by McKinsey, the change needs to start at elementary schools, as 85% of today’s young learners will, by 2030, find themselves working in professions that do not yet exist. Therefore, it is crucial to condition learners to be flexible enough to adapt and learn new skills as they progress in their education and into their careers.
Key to how we’ll work in the future is the world’s ongoing digital transformation – the so-called “fourth industrial revolution.” The attendant trends of globalisation and automation are also changing the way companies do business, and learning skills that complement the changing career landscape will be key to success in the years to come.
A golden opportunity
There is ample opportunity for change and improvement in Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam. Currently, almost half of the Vietnamese workforce, and over three-quarters of workers in Thailand, are classed as “medium skilled,” according to recent data from the International Labour Organization.
The two countries are in a transitory period – moving from agriculture and manufacturing-driven growth to more dynamic, knowledge-based economies. This presents an ideal opportunity to refocus the two countries’ educational priorities, and equip their citizens with the right skill sets for the future.
Going forward, the goal for these countries’ governments is to shift the needle towards not only a larger proportion of higher skilled workers in their respective labour pools, but also to produce workforces better able to compete on the global stage, thus attracting more outside investment.
As a result, for the two governments, vocational education has become a high priority, including supporting institutions that implement programs like Pearson’s vocational and experience-based BTEC courses.
The administrations of Thailand and Vietnam are both keen to see improvements in hard skills – specific, learned technical abilities, such as qualifications in information technology, reading and writing proficiency, as well as presentation and project management skills.
These are specific skills that need to be directly taught, according to Stuart Connor, Pearson Asia’s Qualifications & Assessment Director. At the same time, he adds, there are more general, or soft skills, which are more innate but no less important. These include interpersonal skills, such as the ability to collaborate, network and empathise with fellow workers.
Equally as important is the soft skill of communication – teaching students to collaborate effectively across cultures, borders and languages. Part of this skill is a confident grasp of English - the dominant global medium of communication, says Simon Young, Pearson’s BTEC Portfolio Manager in Asia.
“It seems that English has become a key skill for communicating in business in any role,” he says. “In countries such as Thailand, where you might see a strong local workforce, the interaction with other divisions does require a strong ability to communicate in English.”
As the world becomes ever-more connected and borders less important to global business, an increasing number of workers are seeing English as crucial to their career development – as many as nine in 10 global employees consider it important, according to Pearson research. Less than one in 10, however, feel that their English language ability is adequate for the role they have. This is a crucial skill gap to address because language proficiency is also key to honing a range of soft skills.
“Language skills alone will not make someone employable, but someone is far more likely to be employable if they have language skills, as it supports the development of many of the other skills [such as communication and collaboration] needed to be employable,” Stuart says. “If you’re Vietnamese or Thai, and if you can speak English, you are ticking a multitude of soft skill boxes, too.”