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Each year, the World Economic Forum runs a survey of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) youths aged 15–35 years old. The goal is to understand the views, priorities and concerns of ASEAN’s young population.

In 2019, the survey examined attitudes to jobs and skills, and the impact of technology on the future of work. The survey was conducted online in partnership with Sea, a Singapore-based consumer internet company operating in digital entertainment, e-commerce and digital financial services. In total, the authors collected responses from 56,000 young ASEAN citizens from six countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

ASEAN youths understand the potential for technology to disrupt job markets and place a high value on skills development

ASEAN youths are highly aware of potential disruptions and challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution may bring to their employment prospects:

  • 9.2% of youths believe their current skills are already outdated.
  • A further 52.4% believe they must upgrade their skills constantly.

This suggests a healthy approach among ASEAN youths to having a “growth mindset”, and the need to embrace lifelong learning in place of receiving education and training only in their early years.

These concerns about keeping skills constantly updated in the face of technological change are also reflected in attitudes to jobs:

  • ASEAN youths say the number one reason they change jobs is to learn new skills.
  • What’s more, 5.7% of respondents report having lost a job either because their skills were no longer relevant or because technology displaced their job.

However, even though ASEAN youths attach high value to skills development and training, they report only limited opportunities for formal on-the-job training:

Only 14.1% say they learned their most important skills through formal on-the-job training.

Youths working for big multinational companies (MNCs) say they are more likely to receive formal on-the-job training than those who work for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) or family businesses.

ASEAN youths set a high value on internships. 81.4% believe that internships are either equally important, or more important, than training in school (traditional, formal education).

For businesses, especially SMEs, these findings suggest a strong need to increase investment in human capital development – both to ensure a high-quality workforce and as a source of competitive advantage to attract workers.

ASEAN youths show a strong desire to become entrepreneurs, or to work for foreign multinationals. But traditional SMEs are less favoured

When asked what type of organization they work for today, and where they would like to work in the future, ASEAN youths show a strong preference for entrepreneurial settings, as well as for foreign multinationals:

  • Today, 31.4% are either entrepreneurs or work for a start-up. In the future, 33.1% aspire to work in an entrepreneurial setting.
  • Today, 8.6% work for a foreign multinational. In the future, 18.8% would like to work for one.

However, while certain types of organization are popular, others are seen less favourably. Traditional SMEs are the backbone of ASEAN labour markets, but the survey reveals that small companies may face recruitment challenges:

  • While 18.3% of youths work for SMEs today, only 7.5% want to work for an SME in the future.

ASEAN youths favour jobs in the tech sector and look less favourably on traditional sectors

When asked what sector of the economy they would choose to work for, ASEAN youths show a preference for technology companies, while expressing less interest in others:

  • 7% work in the technology sector today, but 16% want to work in the sector in the future.
  • 15% work in manufacturing today, but only 12% want to work there in the future.
  • 4% work in the construction sector, but only 2% want to work there in the future.

Notably, the education sector, which is essential to the quality of the workforce in an economy, faces a declining aspiration from ASEAN youths, from 8% today to 5% in the future. In the case of Indonesia, it drops from 10.2% down to 6.1%.

ASEAN youths value soft skills more highly than hard skills, and believe they are more competent in soft skills

When asked which skills they believe will be most valuable in the future, ASEAN youths place higher value on soft skills (such as emotional intelligence, resilience and adaptability) than on hard skills (generally regarded as “STEM”: science, technology, engineering and maths):

  • The three skills considered most important are: creativity and innovation; language skills; and the ability to use technology (e.g. social media and e-commerce).
  • The two least highly valued skills are: data analytics; and maths and science.
  • In assessing their proficiency in different skills, three of the four skills that ASEAN youths regard as their weakest are in the STEM area: ranked bottom is technology design (e.g. software programming); followed by data analytics; then language skills; and then maths and science.

The fact that youths attach high value to language skills is consistent with our survey findings that 46.4% of young people in ASEAN are keen to work overseas in the next three years. Experience gained in another country is a notable strategy for upgrading skills in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Given the strong desire from ASEAN youths to work in the tech sector, the perceived weakness in STEM subjects may be a barrier to future job aspirations. However, not all roles at tech companies require technical skills. Business development, marketing and other functions often call for soft rather than hard skills.

More positively, given the high preference that ASEAN youths show to be entrepreneurs, it seems likely that many youths aspire to be small and micro traders, using e-commerce platforms, online payment systems and social media to empower their businesses. Being an entrepreneur does not have to mean developing new apps, where STEM skills would be important. Instead, it can equally mean being a basket weaver from rural Kalimantan and using technology to sell regionally and even globally. Soft skills, coupled with a working knowledge of today’s digital platforms, could serve these aspirations well.

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