Micro SMEs employ 99% of the workforce in most ASEAN states.

Micro SMEs employ 99% of the workforce in most ASEAN states. Source: Shutterstock

ASEAN and Google.org team up to combat tech skills gap

  • The Southeast Asian federation ASEAN is working with Asia Foundation and Google.org to kickoff a digital empowerment scheme in the region targeting SMEs & underemployed communities

Some 200,000 individuals across Southeast Asia are to be trained with crucial digital skills, in efforts to stoke the embers of innovation in the region’s economy in the wake of COVID-19. 

Led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in partnership with Asia Foundation, and backed by a US$3.3 million grant from Google.org (the search giant’s philanthropic arm) the project, dubbed Go Digital ASEAN, aims to equip micro and small-medium enterprises (MSMEs) across member states with the critical digital skills and knowledge to help bridge a ‘digital gap’ and turbo-charge economic recovery. 

A digital skills shortage

Across the world, by 2030, experts predict that the technology sector will see a labour-skills shortage of 4.3 million workers if action isn’t taken. As all companies essentially become tech companies – facilitated by advances in 5G, IoT and other Industry 4.0 technologies – it’s essential that businesses and public bodies team up to advance tech skillsets within their markets. 

While businesses in Southeast Asia are fast adopting new technologies, there’s a risk that talent to support its implementation won’t keep pace. “There are a number of challenges in the IT space due to the sudden and broad uptake of new technologies for which there are insufficient skills within the markets today,” said Simon Piff, vice president of security practice at IDC Asia-Pacific.

“Technologies such as artificial intelligence, analytics, distributed ledger (blockchain) are relatively new areas that are in demand by a range of businesses but for which the existing skill base does not exist at scale,” he said. 

Indonesia, for one, is high on the list of countries expected to be most affected if prevention measures are not taken to enforce tech skills development, with a US$21.8 billion impact just within the technology, media, and telecommunications sector.

Taking action

The first-of-its-kind collaboration, Go Digital ASEAN seeks to tackle this issue head on, pooling expertise from government, business and other sectors, targeting MSMEs from rural areas, as well as underserved communities including youth, disabled entrepreneurs. 

Of those 200,000 people, 60% will be women and 40% will be men and, if successful, the initiative will foster cooperation between public and private interests in countries including Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos, and build on those relationships going forward to create stronger participation in the regional digital economy, where MSMEs are responsible for employing more than 80% of the workforce. 

Reeling in the support of local partners and governments, as well as volunteers, digital training is expected to take place in remote villages and small towns and cities, providing the tools to enable MSME owners and employees to better engage with the local and regional digital economy.

Training modules will include localized 1-on-1 training sessions, digital literacy programs for job seekers, online safety and cybersecurity components, digital tools’ training including in digital marketing and business development. 

Those enrolled can also access follow up mentorships with experienced local partners who understand the local ecosystem and have expertise in areas such as agriculture, tourism, and handicrafts. The scheme will also offer COVID-19 awareness and relief assistance programs in their neighbourhoods.

Welcome collaboration

Of the funding that Google.org is fronting, roughly half will go towards enabling micro, small, and medium enterprise owners, while the other will go to training for underemployed communities. 

“We very much welcome this collaboration with The Asia Foundation and appreciate the support by Google.org in our mission to enable more MSMEs to participate and take advantage of the growing digital economy in ASEAN,” remarked Bountheung Douangsavanh, chairing the committee overseeing Go Digital ASEAN. 

Bountheung added that the initiative’s bigger ambitions lie in joining up collaborations between public and private sector organizations across Southeast Asia “by providing access to information, training, mentoring, and networking opportunities.”

The Go Digital ASEAN project isn’t the first time Google has rolled up its sleeves to help support the growth of digital skills in the region. The firm’s ‘Grow with Google’ campaign has so far trained 50 million people in Asia Pacific to help them get closer to their economic potential – including business operations affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Google stated at the time that it will continue making its ad credits available to small businesses in APAC as part of a larger US$340 million global commitment. 

“We’ll keep adding new forms of support across all our tools and platforms. But where we believe we can make the biggest, most sustained impact is in digital skills,” said Scott Beaumont, Google’s President, Asia Pacific.