Lifelong learning key to future economy

Ployroong Lerttaweepornkul

If you think disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation only affect lower-skilled workers, not professionals like you, think again.True, the widespread use of robotics and automation has hit manufacturing workers hard as it forges ahead to put millions in routine, repetitive tasks out of work.

But when an online healthcare platform like China’s Ping An Good Doctor can diagnose more than 2,000 illnesses just through questions and answers and can prescribe medications within one minute, then medical jobs are no longer as secure.

You and your professional jobs, too, can be caught off guard sooner than you think.

Investing in new skills is necessary to cope with rapid technological change. This is where the government should come in. The big question is what is the right thing for the government to do to soften the pangs of disruptive technologies in the workforce?

In the past few years, the business sector in Thailand has been severely disrupted by new technologies, affecting both their operations and business models while hitting workers the hardest.

In 2016, about 800-1,000 workers in the automotive industry lost their jobs. The mainstream media industry was not spared either. Newspapers and magazines folded one after another. The radio and TV industries were deep in trouble, and still are. During 2014-2018, more than 500 media workers were laid off by their digital TV companies.

For sure, things will get worse. More and more occupations will be disrupted by digital technology and innovations. Taxi and bus drivers, for instance, will be pushed aside by self-driving cars. At present, WeRide, China’s leading taxi service company is already testing its L4 autonomous driving technology with passengers in Guangzhou.

Retail cashiers, too, will fast disappear. For example, at the Amazon Go convenience stores in the United States, shoppers with the Amazon application on their smartphones can fetch what they want in the store and just walk out of the door. The application will deduct the money from their accounts automatically.

Professionals in many industries will also find themselves disrupted by artificial intelligence and digital technologies. Among them, people in the hotel industry, travel agents, tax accountants, secretaries, translators, bank tellers, librarians, and booksellers, to name just a few.

In Thailand, lowly skilled workers comprise as much as 57% of the total workforce. They face the highest risk of being replaced by robots and automation. More jobs will be lost to technological advancement. If workers do not prepare themselves for the future of work, they cannot survive in disruptive times.

To get through difficult times ahead, workers must sharpen existing work skills and develop new ones that better answer job market demands. But they face a common obstacle: a lack of information about the skills and occupations that are needed in the future. Filling the information gap is the government’s responsibility.

The government must create an information ecosystem that is easily accessible to people, providing them with up-to-date information about in-demand work skills, career paths, necessary skills to get ahead in different occupations, and pay rates in different industries.

The aim is to help workers see clearly how they could progress in their fields of work and what skills they still lack and need to improve. For example, the electronics manufacturing industry needs people with the skill to work with “smart” devices and machines, thanks to the prevalence of AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and automation in the workplace. Skills in automated systems design, for example, are much in demand.

Apart from the necessary information, the government must promote lifelong learning among workers by providing them with financial support.

True, the Thai government has made some efforts in that direction. To promote work skills for future demands, the Digital Manpower Fund of the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (Depa) initiated a grant programme to promote work-skill development for not more than 10,000 baht for a digital professional, not exceeding 15,000 baht for a digital specialist and not more than 100,000 bath for a high demand skill. But this programme is small and with limited reach.

Also, this grant programme is not lifelong learning which should be available for all age groups. Importantly, skill development is not only about keeping up with the digital world. Critical, creative and systematic thinking are also important skills that should be promoted. The same with languages, especially English.

Thailand should learn from other countries on how they are doing to promote lifelong learning.

Singapore, for example, has a one-stop education, training and career guidance online portal called SkillsFuture to serve citizens’ different lifelong learning needs.

The SkillsFuture Work and Study Programme is for students who want to work while pursuing undergraduate degrees. SkillsFuture Credit, meanwhile, offers an opening credit of S$500 (11,500 baht) for every Singapore citizen over 25 to take courses and develop the skills necessary for the future economy such as data analysis and advanced manufacturing.

For those over 40 who want to pursue postgraduate studies, the SkillsFuture Mid-career Enhanced Subsidy programme will pay 90% of their tuition fees.

The rapid development of disruptive technologies in artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, and the Internet of Things will trigger a tsunami of change that will seriously affect all levels of businesses and a majority of the workforce.

Admit it, the country’s current skill development project to prepare for the digital economy is too narrow and too limited in scope. The answer is lifelong learning. It is the most effective way for people to strengthen their skills for their present jobs and the future.

The workforce needs to know what skills they need to survive disruptive technologies. The government must provide them with the big picture that lies ahead with up-to-date information about in-demand skills and, better still, financially support lifelong learning among all age groups to prepare for the future economy.

To achieve this goal, the government, the private sector and educational institutions must work closely together.

Time is running out. The time to prepare for change is now.

Ployroong Lerttaweepornkul is a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, April 08, 2020