Ahead of the curve: How Southeast Asia's fast-growing economies can address the skills gap


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.  

Well-rounded education  

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.”