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Asia’s great IT skills challenge

Posted on February 2, 2017

4 min read

The digital age has changed the way we live and work, but as Robert Clark discovered, modern economies are challenged by the ever-growing and constantly shifting demand for IT expertise.

Virtually every study of the skills or jobs markets places IT at or near the top as one of the most critical skillsets.

In its last global CEO survey, management consultancy PwC found 73% of corporate chiefs identified the talent shortage as “crisis-level priority” – up from 46% six years previously.  More than four-fifths said they were seeking a “much broader range of skills.”

While it’s a problem for everyone from headhunters to government planners, it does seem to be a greater challenge for Asian businesses. Just 16% of Asian executives say it is “very easy” to find employees with the right digital skills compared with 23% of western ones, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asian Digital Transformation Index (sponsored by Telstra), published late last year.

Singapore, South Korea and Japan ranked at the top of the study of 11 Asian economies.  CT Liu, executive vice president at the Taiwan government research facility the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), told researchers that the lack of suitable digital skills is the organisation’s “biggest challenge.”

The in-demand jobs around the region are in areas such as cloud, machine learning, artificial intelligence and virtualisation.

But the shortfall in expertise actually goes deeper and broader than just tech employees. Digital skills are increasingly needed across the entire economy, and not just by business.

Digital is reshaping economies everywhere. It’s breaking down entry barriers and enabling new kinds of nimble, low-cost services. Established businesses, from retail to logistics to finance, are setting out on digital transformation programmes that will make them more agile and efficient and capable of competing in the new environment.

It’s also altering the relationship between organisations and their partners and customers. Brands and governments are engaging with customers and citizens directly through online platforms, while businesses, suppliers and customers are working in large open collaboration models that speed up innovation.

Meanwhile, the emergence of IoT, smart home and connected car and the growth in AI and analytics means massive new fields of business and innovation are opening up.  All require skillsets broader than just computer scientists and engineers.

Singapore, a global digital leader, is one country that recognises the need for deep digital literacy. Teo Ser Luck, Minister for Manpower, says skill development is the highest priority in order to “build a core of expertise needed to sustain business growth.”

It is making computing a compulsory subject and has established a new agency, SkillsFuture Singapore, with a brief to promote a culture of lifelong learning.

It’s not the only country doing so. Sweden has also launched a programme aimed at making ICTs an integral part of learning in schools curricula.

In Hong Kong this is still a work in progress. According to a survey by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management, more than 90% of businesses found it quite difficult to recruit the right talent, with shortages in IT particularly significant.

Charles Mok, who represents the IT sector in the Legislative Council, says the problem is “urgent” and has called for new measures at multiple levels, including funding for industry-university partnerships, fellowships to attract top tech talent and greater availability of open government data,

Mok, a successful former internet entrepreneur, has called for coding to be introduced into basic education and for girls to be encouraged into IT and STEM courses.

“Coding has become a necessary skill for our next generation but Hong Kong is still lagging behind,” he said.

“[U]ltimately, it is our actions today that will determine whether that change mainly results in massive displacement of workers or the emergence of new opportunities.”

This article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Telstra.

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