Asian workers pushed to upskill as pandemic accelerates digital shift

The pandemic has accelerated digitalization and automation by governments and businesses, but there is a risk of worsening inequalities

– Automation and digitization accelerated by the pandemic in all sectors

– Some countries invest in upskilling and retraining of workers

– Risk of widening inequalities, structural unemployment for some

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, March 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Jaya Latchmi Mutusammy had worked for several years in customer service and finance in Singapore, when caring for her sick parents and the demand for medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic hit her. forced to change course, with the help of the government.

Mutusammy, 47, is among tens of thousands who have taken advantage of the city-state’s SkillsFuture Singapore scheme, an adult education and training initiative that has been revamped to prepare workers for the pandemic environment.

“With my mum and dad inside and outside the hospital I saw how critical healthcare professionals were, I took a certificate course in healthcare support through SkillsFuture and got a job as a clinical assistant,” Mutusammy said.

“Then the pandemic hit, and healthcare workers became even more essential. So I took another course in phlebotomy, because I saw that drawing blood was a must-have skill, and I didn’t want to be left behind,” she told the Thomson. Reuters Foundation.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended jobs around the world, with global unemployment expected to reach 207 million in 2022 – up from 186 million in 2019 before the coronavirus hit, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

About half of all workers will need to retrain in the next five years, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said in a statement. 2020 reportand governments and businesses are essential to ensure that low-wage workers are not forgotten.

In Asia, countries such as India, Singapore and Malaysia have implemented training programs and offered tax incentives and cash grants to stimulate learning in sectors such as information technology, health and the so-called green economy.

Technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon and IBM spear global initiatives to train workers for tech jobs.

But while there has been a surge in the number of people seeking e-learning, especially digital skills, during the pandemic, there is a risk of worsening inequality as large swathes of the population still do not have access to it, noted the WEF.

“If governments and businesses don’t focus on training the workforce and making it employable, it will lead to an unprecedented increase in social and economic inequality,” said Rituparna Chakraborty of TeamLease, a company recruitment in India.


The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns to control its spread have affected a wide range of industries, from aviation to tourism and from hospitality to retail, with millions of workers furloughed or laid off around the world.

Many of those jobs are not coming back as companies have deployed automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in warehouses, grocery stores, call centers and manufacturing plants to reduce congestion and adhere to health regulations. more stringent.

By 2025, some 85 million jobs could be displaced by the shift to machines, while 97 million new roles related to machines and algorithms could emerge, the WEF noted.

Malaysia launched its digital economy plan last year and has allocated 1 billion ringgit ($240,000) in its budget this year for upskilling and reskilling programs, while a skills engagement in New Zealand compels companies to double their on-the-job training and reskilling by 2025.

Singapore’s SkillsFuture uses big data and machine learning to monitor global, regional and local job and skills trends to help workers “stay relevant and employable” through training, career coaching, webinars and grants for course fees.

Around 540,000 Singaporeans participated in SkillsFuture initiatives in 2020, up from 500,000 the previous year. In 2021, that figure rose to around 660,000 – the highest number since the program launched in 2015, according to official data.

In December, the agency first skills assessment named the digital sector, the green economy and the care sector as the three “priority pillars of economic growth” likely to create tens of thousands of jobs in the country.

With the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, “knowing what skills are in demand has never been more important,” said a spokesperson for SkillsFuture Singapore.

A wealthy country like Singapore, with a population of just 5.7 million, can better afford to invest in skills programs than larger, poorer countries, said Ayesha Khanna, chief executive of ADDO AI, a Singaporean technology services company.

“We are going to be an increasingly digital environment, and countries need to proactively help workers upskill,” said Khanna, who was on the steering committee of SkillsFuture Singapore.

“The pandemic is a nudge for governments to do that.”


Around the world, one of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the explosive growth of the gig economy, as the shift to digital transactions has sparked an increase in delivery, transportation and courier jobs. warehouse, largely occupied by informal and contract workers.

In India alone, the number of on-demand jobs could rise to 90 million in 8-10 years, from around 3 million currently, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

With adequate protections, the labor economy can create opportunities for women and older people, and make jobs more accessible and inclusive for low-income communities, he said.

“The number of gig workers has increased during the pandemic because people have lost their jobs or needed extra income due to medical emergencies,” said Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the All India Workers’ Federation. application-based transport (IFAT), an advocacy group.

“A lot of delivery people have a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree – but there are no jobs, so they continue to work despite the difficult conditions,” he said.

India has launched several initiatives to address the skills gap, but critics say they are inadequate for the large number of people who need reskilling and fail to address the problem of creating fewer jobs. jobs for hundreds of millions of working-age people.

National unemployment peaked at 23.5% in 2020 and has remained well above 7% since, above the global average.

“I don’t think enough is being done to enable workers to retrain and make the transition,” said Amit Basole, associate professor of economics at Azim Premji University.

“The potential consequences are very serious: we can envisage long-term structural unemployment for certain types of workers. Combined with poor quality education during the pandemic, this can mean a big mismatch between labor supply and demand.

For Sarah Mokhtar in Singapore, transitioning into a tech job with her SkillsFuture credits was relatively easy.

The 35-year-old, who had worked in the consumer goods industry for almost 15 years, went to a three-month technology bootcamp organized by Generation Singapore, a non-profit organization that prepares and places workers in jobs.

She is currently training as an application developer.

“There is some risk in changing careers at this point,” she said. “But I wanted to join an industry that is future-proof.”

($1 = 4.19315 Malaysian ringgit)

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news

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