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.”
Welcome to episode 15 of the Art of Learning podcast.
In this episode, we sit down with Shirley Puspitawati, Educational consultant, BPK Penabur, and Academic General Manager, Kipina Kids Indonesia, to cover how English language skills create employment opportunities, plus some of the challenges Southeast Asian learners face when embarking on their language learning journey, and tips on how to learn English with a purpose.
We discuss Shirley's busy day-to-day schedule (0:58), why employers value English language skills now more than ever before (3:49), how curriculums have evolved over the years to become more accessible for learners and increasingly career-focused (9:05), how technology is assisting learners in their English language learning journey (14:09), plus much more.
Several factors have contributed to the growing importance of the English language and the evolution of the instruction process in Asia.
Starting from the top down, governments across the region are increasingly emphasising the value of English for inter-regional development while rapid globalisation and advances in technology are bringing major changes to the job market.
Welcome to episode 6 of the Art of Learning podcast.
We’re joined by Pearson’s Simon Young, Portfolio Director, BTEC Asia, to discuss what it truly means to upskill the workforce in the modern economy and the importance of career-focused qualifications.
We talked about how upskilling unlocks the true power of the workforce (1:01), changing the perception of vocational education through the success of BTEC (3:35), the process of building a BTEC qualification (8:29), why educators love teaching a BTEC qualification (12:14), the popular BTEC qualifications in Southeast Asia (14:30), how BTEC can work for learners who want to go to university and more (17:44).
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.”