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Addressing the Digital Skills Gap in the Asia-Pacific: What’s in it for the Private Sector?

June 14, 2023

By Niki Baroy

As powerful technologies like big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence continue to generate headlines—and handwringing—digital skills have never been in greater demand. The World Economic Forum has projected that as many as 85 million existing jobs could disappear by as early as 2025, while 97 million new jobs will emerge that require more technical skills, due to what they have called “the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.” The 2022 Global Skills Report from online education and training site Coursera states, “Digital skills are the shared language of the modern economy. Not every worker needs to learn how to code, but every worker needs to be literate in digital skills.”

Aware of this demand, governments and multilateral institutions around the globe are directing their attention to digital skills development. Last September, the U.S. Commerce Department launched its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity Upskilling Initiative, a public-private partnership with 14 U.S. companies to provide upskilling programs to an initial set of eight partner countries in Asia and the Pacific. The World Economic Forum announced a similar initiative in 2020, the Reskilling Revolution, which aims to “provide one billion people with better education, skills, and jobs by 2030.”

The private sector is also paying attention to these developments. Initiatives to address the digital skills gap can be an opportunity for corporations to expand their presence to new markets, or to renew their engagement with older markets in a new capacity. While attention has focused largely on companies from the United States and Europe, corporations in Asia-Pacific, particularly in China, India, Japan, and South Korea, are also proactive in the digital-skilling space.

Although Chinese and Indian corporations have fewer initiatives than their South Korean and Japanese counterparts, they have a tighter geographic focus on the Asia-Pacific region. They also tend to diverge in their respective approaches. Chinese corporations largely focus on developing the digital skills of women and girls. In 2021, the Malaysian subsidiary of Chinese telecom giant Huawei partnered with Malaysia’s Women Leadership Foundation to develop a program of expert workshops and seminars for women leaders. Indian corporations, on the other hand, have followed a digital-skilling strategy of broad-based, long-term partnerships, including the 2022 partnership between Indian companies and the government of New South Wales, Australia, which focused on education in medical technology.

Japanese and South Korean corporations have launched more digital-skills initiatives, but they have largely been concentrated in Europe. Less than a quarter of South Korean corporate initiatives are available to Asia-Pacific countries, and most of these are in Vietnam, towards which South Korean economic engagement in general has been “heavily skewed.” Japanese and South Korean companies are similar not only in their geographic focus but also in their interest in education-related initiatives. A distinct feature of South Korean corporate initiatives, however, is the availability of apprenticeships and on-the-job opportunities.

Corporate initiatives in this space also align with the foreign policy interests of many Asian powers. China’s Digital Silk Road encourages people-to-people ties with neighboring countries and provides a vehicle for corporate digital-skilling efforts. India’s G20 presidency has focused on “building digital infrastructure [and] resilient supply chains, supporting digital skills, and addressing cybersecurity issues” to advance the global digital economy. Indian corporations, which have previously had minimal agency in foreign policy, now have the opportunity to foster international engagement through independent, private-sector partnerships and investments informed by India’s foreign policy priorities. Similarly, Japanese companies can play a significant role in Tokyo’s Asia-Pacific foreign policy; for example, under Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific plan, even if this plan does not explicitly state the role of digital technologies. In South Korea, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s new ASEAN strategy presents an opportunity for corporations to participate in the creation of “global cooperation networks.” This builds on the historic role of Korea’s private sector as a bridge for economic cooperation between South Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries.

This alignment between corporate and foreign-policy interests in digital skilling can be an asset to corporations themselves. In some cases, governments actively lobby for and support economic cooperation between their home-grown companies and public- or private-sector institutions overseas. The Japanese government, for instance, has committed to “actively push cooperation between business sectors of Japan and China in third countries, including Asian countries.” In India, the Modi government is advancing India’s startup ecosystem by maximizing its foreign relations. Overall, there are similar opportunities for Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and South Korean corporations to expand existing initiatives into the Asia-Pacific region and integrate them into their respective countries’ foreign policies, while bringing mutual benefits to both the public and private sectors.

Importantly, the aim of these initiatives is to reach individuals and communities most in need of digital skills. Companies in the Asia-Pacific region are already initiating these programs. But the demand for digital skills in this increasingly digitalized world we live in will only continue to grow. The task of upskilling Asia-Pacific communities, therefore, is urgent. To address this, the private sector can further expand their existing initiatives. Considering the mutual interests of the private sector and governments in China, India, Japan, and South Korea, companies have much to gain from expanding their digital skills initiatives in the region. Not only will they contribute to their countries’ foreign policies, but they will also strengthen their own presence in Asia-Pacific markets. The private sector must seize this opportunity to take a proactive role in regional digital skills development and, most importantly, support hard-to-reach communities in the Asia-Pacific.

For more, read the new report, Digital Skilling in Asia and the Pacific: Efforts of Asia-Pacific’s Corporate Sector, by Niki Baroy.

Niki Baroy is the International Development Cooperation research and Future Skills Alliance operations lead at The Asia Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Malaysia
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Future Skills Alliance, The Future of Work

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