Human Capital Report: Spotlight on Southeast Asia (Part 2/2)

In December 2013, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the Human Capital Report, produced in collaboration with Mercer. The report provides insights about how well countries are leveraging their human capital and establishing workforces that are prepared for the demands of competitive economies. HQ Asia speaks to Mercer’s Orlando Ashford and Roland Ruiz to understand the insights derived from the report. Ashford is President, Talent Business Segment at Mercer, and Ruiz is Partner & Talent Market Business Leader, ASEAN.

The first part of this series focused on an in-depth analysis of the report’s insights about Indonesia and Singapore, and the differing qualities of their strengths in Workforce and Employment and contrasting nature of their gap in Health and Wellness. This second part explores possible drivers for human capital and economic development in ASEAN.

Doubling Your Talent Pool

Gender was one of the highlights as Mercer's Orlando Ashford, President, Talent Business Segment, and Roland Ruiz, Partner & Talent Market Business Leader, ASEAN, discuss the prospects for human capital development in the region. The math is simple, as Ashford puts it: “If you believe that 50% of our talent pool is made up of females, how countries engage and deploy that part of their workforce is critical.”

In a region where cultural and political barriers have often limited the career aspirations of women, the Philippines, ranked 4th globally in the Gender Gap Index similarly published by the WEF, offers interesting learning points for other nations. Ruiz points out the work companies are doing in engaging the female workforce and recognizing their concerns, “a semi-conductor company I spoke to recently worked with high schools to help inform female high school students that engineering jobs are alright – they are as much for women as for men.”

Roland Ruiz (pictured right) is Partner & Talent Market Business Leader, ASEAN at Mercer

While male and female workers both deserve the same opportunities, Ashford and Ruiz both suggest that this does not imply that the interventions should be the same. “Some companies are still in denial that women are different. They need earlier exposure across different geographies and functions so that when they off board for maternity reasons, they can come back onboard again with this set of knowledge and exposure…. Men have more time to get the varied exposure; women do not”, Ruiz observed.

Would such differences in treatment suggest discrimination against men? Not really, Ashford points out, since the focus should be on equal outcomes, not equal treatment.  Recognising the different needs and career cycles of women would allow companies to tailor specialized interventions for them.

Disruptions in Education

Engaging talent early is a strategy Ashford believes is key to addressing the dearth of quality tertiary education in the region, “countries have done these for years in sports  – scouting for talent in communities, pulling them into academies, and 15 years later they are in the Olympics. We can do the same for work – identify them early for the country or organisation, and develop them with skills that are critical for the future.” He suggests that increasing research into methods like gamification and psychometric testing might allow corporations to bypass the universities in engaging the talent pool.

The universities themselves might be the main problem in driving such a disruption. Ruiz quotes the result of another study Mercer had produced, “we asked companies whether they felt talent was ready coming out from school. A lot of companies we spoke to in Southeast Asia aren’t happy with it.” Many graduates need to be retrained upon employment in order to acquire the skillsets required to excel in their jobs.

Countries have done these for years in sports – scouting for talent in communities, pulling them into academies, and 15 years later they are in the Olympics. We can do the same for work.

The traditional education system definitely has scope for improvement – “with some of the established universities, 90 units are required for graduation when only 30 units are required for developing the basic skills for work.. There is a big gap of 60 units existing only for the university to earn money”, Ruiz says. Ashford builds on that and expounds on a possibility, “Imagine if a 4-year university education is reduced to 2, and we spend that remaining 2 years onboarding and rotating talent. A lot of companies will love to do that.”

Whether universities respond to these issues, the landscape is set to change. The pair cited Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a potentially disruptive technology. Ashford points out that the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT are already jumping ahead of the curve and making their syllabus available online, allowing learners all over the world to access quality education at minimal cost. The onus, he suggests, is on the employers to start viewing MOOCs qualifications in the same way they do traditional degrees. If MOOCs qualifications open the same doors as the more conventional education system, its efficiency and lower cost would appeal greatly to ASEAN, where demand for talent is constantly increasing and communities tend to be less affluent compared to Western counterparts.

“Universities traditionally are about validating competence – they measure and develop skill competences for talent to succeed at work”, Ashford concludes, “and if there are other valid ways to test and develop competency when universities are failing, the universities are at risk.” Of course, these disruptions in themselves are still works in progress, as Justin Fox, Harvard Business Review Group’s Executive Editor, New York, points out in his article. Mercer have themselves also recently launched a book exploring the possibilities presented by innovative approaches to education.

Multicultural and Multi-linguist

Having just stepped out from an internal training programme from the Mercer’s Singapore office, Ashford shares that almost every ASEAN employee he spoke to in the room has had international exposure, “this is not true for the training programmes I conducted in the US or European countries. The people in this region are simply more willing to be internationally mobile.”

The willingness of its people to gain international exposure and experience is an important asset as ASEAN seeks to engage the ever-changing global economy, an asset that could be further enhanced by the increase in mobility that could be facilitated by the ASEAN Economic Community. African-American Ashford shares how he jokes with his children about sending them to language lessons, “you are American, look African, and speak English, Spanish and Mandarin. You should do fine!”

With ASEAN developing a similarly versatile talent pool, the potential for development for the region’s human capital is great. As the ASEAN Economic Community ushers in unprecedented opportunities for economic growth, it is time for the local business leaders in each country to lead and drive the change.

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