Helping workers survive automation

Ratree Prasomsup

Despite their different politics, successive governments similarly promised to produce a skilled workforce to move the country out of the middle-income trap. They also similarly failed. The country’s challenges are now even greater with the rapidly changing employment landscape from disruptive technology.

Don’t blame it on a lack of policy vision.All major national manpower development policies are geared towards the same goal – to make Thailand a developed and competitive country. Be they the current government’s Thailand 4.0 policy, the 20-Year National Strategic Framework (2017-2036), or 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan (2017-2021), their common goal is to increase national competitiveness through innovations and to produce a competent workforce with knowledge, skills and attributes. Yet the gap between vision and action is a wide one.

Don’t blame it on a lack of jobs either.The labour force market is in dire need of medium-skilled workers in the fields of science and technology. Yet the educational system consistently failed to meet the labour market’s demands. At the same time, it keeps churning out graduates who cannot meet labour market needs, resulting in an increasing surplus of bachelor’s degree graduates who are unemployed.

To fill the gap, there have been state efforts to develop competency models and professional standards to equip the workforce with new skills so they can catch up with changing demands in the labour market.

There are several state agencies in charge of workforce competency development. They include the Department of Skill Development, the Office of Vocational Educational Commission, and the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute (Public Organisation). Professional councils and associations, as well as businesses, have also participated in efforts to develop workforce competency as they directly benefit from it.

Here is a big question: Have these state agencies adjusted themselves to understand disruptive technology and its repercussions so they can effectively help the workforce cope with changes in the labour market?

To survive digital disruption, what workers need is not only new technical skills. They also need to have creativity, critical thinking, and lifelong learning skills to effectively respond to rapid technological changes and artificial intelligence that will make a large number of workers jobless while creating new jobs that need new skills.

According to research by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne in 2013, workers who are most likely to be replaced by automation are in industrial routines and assembly lines.

But those with professional skills and expertise will not be spared either. In the health services industry, for example, big data technology will soon provide more accurate diagnoses than physicians. The researchers also predicted that within one or two decades, about 47% of American jobs will be replaced by automation.

In the firing line are jobs in transportation and logistics, factory assembly lines, office clerical work, and many jobs in the services sector. Meanwhile, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the new jobs that will be in high demand are in data analysis, science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data.

Here, the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute plays an important role in improving and standardising professional qualifications to meet employers’ demands. Its work covers work in the agricultural, industrial and service sectors and its mission is to make local professional qualifications meet Asean and international standards in the same kinds of jobs.

Equally important, the professional qualification certificates are a great boon to the majority of workers since they do not have a high educational background but are rich with professional skills and expertise from work experience. With professional qualification certificates, they can strengthen their work profiles and widen their job opportunities in the future.

As of May 16, 2019, the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute has set standards and provided professional qualifications certificates for 680 occupations in 54 sectors. Based on the research by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, almost 20 fields of work will be replaced by automation, for example, logistics, manufacturing, construction and aviation.

Although the businesses in high-speed rail, information and communications technology, and digital media have generated new jobs with low risk of being disrupted, the number of these jobs is still relatively small.

Meantime, it is still not possible to determine exactly how soon and how much automation will replace one’s occupation due to a lack of information on the current use of automation and the level of employment in different industries.

Apart from the different scale and scope of automation currently in use, the availability of capital and personnel skills and knowledge also determines how soon and how serious a particular business will be affected by technological disruption.

The professional qualification system will play an important role to help the country and the workforce cope with disruption. To do that, however, the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute must be more proactive.

For starters, the institute must focus on the occupations that face low risks of being replaced by automation and still employ a substantial amount of manpower. Otherwise, the resources will be wasted on the occupations that will soon disappear.

Professional qualification standards and the certification system are essential to strengthen workforce competency, answer the country’s development goals, and sharpen Thailand’s competitiveness in the international arena. But it needs to readjust its priorities to remain relevant to current realities and needs. For example, it must identify and include new occupations with promise in its professional qualifications system and discard the ones that will disappear in the next five to 10 years.

In addition, the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute should concentrate more on manpower training to lift competency. The certification and better job opportunities will attract more people to take part in the professional qualification tests and training offered by the institute, making its services more widely known and better maximised than they are now.

Workforce competency is crucial when the employment landscape is facing a digital tsunami. The Thailand Professional Qualification Institute can help ease the blow if it is doing its job right amid rapid changes. Otherwise, the institute faces the risk of being overlooked, obsolete, and disrupted itself.

Ratree Prasomsup is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Wednesday, March 11, 2020