Preparing for post-pandemic world

Danial Norjidi

The Regional Study Report on Human Resources Development (HRD) Readiness in ASEAN was recently launched, providing baseline information on the preparedness of HRD policies and programmes across ASEAN member states (AMS) in enabling their workforce to be relevant, agile and resilient for the future of work.

A study was launched on April 26 in Hanoi, Vietnam and online, attracting over 100 participants from within and outside the region, according to a statement.

Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Kung Phoak, in his remarks, applauded the timeliness of the study as the region’s human resources need to be prepared for a post-pandemic world.

The COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation, ageing societies, climate change and increasing labour migration, are some of the key challenges influencing the future of work in the region, he added.

Supplemented by 10 country reports providing country-specific in-depth analyses and recommendations, the regional report is forward looking and framed to instill future-oriented perspectives in people’s learning and development, as well as acquisition of a broader range of 21st Century skills.

The report was a joint initiative of Vietnam’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs and the ASEAN Secretariat, with the support of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH through the Regional Cooperation Programme in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (RECOTVET).

The study was conducted to support the implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on HRD for the Changing World of Work adopted at the 36th ASEAN Summit last year. The launch also saw discussions on the development of a monitoring and evaluation framework for the roadmap of actions to implement the declaration.

Two major objectives were pursued by the study. In terms of conceptual function, it introduced a conceptual framework for HRD harnessed to describe existing practices in AMS and to identify options for future policies. In terms of empirical exploration, it compiled and synthesises the strategies, policies and programmes in AMS that are currently applied with regards to HRD in reaction to future challenges in a changing world of work.

The report defined HRD as “a concept to promote the capacity of people to engage successfully in new tasks, jobs and occupations, solve problems and mobilise their creative and innovative potentials for their personal advancement and the progress of society”.

‘HRD readiness’, it said, refers to “the commitment and initiative of state bodies and the business sector to engage in the promotion of HRD”.

Also mentioned as an integral part of HRD is lifelong learning (LLL). “Whereas the concept of HRD accentuates the perspective of the providers of learning and development opportunities, LLL points to the role and responsibility of the learner, without which no HRD effort can succeed.”

The study proceeded to highlighting HRD as a response to future challenges such as the digital transformation; the transformation of labour markets; social inequality and a lack of social cohesion; as well as to environmental degradation and climate change. It adds that each of these mega-trends gives rise to changing skills requirements.

While noting that the question of which skills will be needed is hard to answer, the study added that in literature on future skills, a broad consensus has emerged regarding the types of skills that will strengthen the individual capacity to cope with change and uncertainty.

These include cognitive skills with sub-types: numeracy and literacy as foundation skills; low-order cognitive skills on the level of understanding and applying; and high-order cognitive skills on the level of analysing, evaluating/critical thinking and creating/innovating. Also included are information and communication technology (ICT) skills/digital literacy; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills; social skills; learnability; character qualities; and problem-solving in complex, technology-rich environments.

As part of the conceptual framework, key fields of HRD as well as areas of intervention can be identified and combined. The key fields of HRD are: general education; technical and vocational education and training (TVET); higher education; corporate learning and development; as well as non- and informal learning.

Within these key fields, six general areas of intervention for promoting HRD are introduced: to promote HRD culture; to adopt inclusive approach; to strengthen enabling structures; to modernise educational programmes; to professionalise development of qualified teaching personnel; and to promote engagement of the business sector in HRD.

Each of these six areas of intervention is broken down into a total of 30 sub-areas, encompassing the range of possible interventions for stakeholders to promote HRD in their country.

The findings in the study made a coherent picture overall: “As a result of the HRD readiness questionnaire, an implementation gap could be identified. While the areas of intervention for the promotion of HRD are appraised as highly important, realisation and implementation lag behind to a considerable extent. This general finding is confirmed and substantiated by specific findings derived from the country reports of 10 AMS.

“Awareness of the need to invest in HRD is remarkably high within the AMS. However, AMS differ with regard to the degree of implementation of respective strategies, policies and programmes. Although many experiences as well as challenges have already been published before, this study conceptualises, specifies and extends HRD readiness within a comprehensive framework. This allows stakeholders at a regional and national level to put existing initiatives into context and to identify priorities for taking next steps.”

Apart from the various issues defining potential room for improvement, the study notes that there is also some reason for AMS to be proud of achievements to date.

These include: HRD and LLL are already rooted in national strategies as a means of promoting economic and societal advancement; despite remarkable differences across the AMS, access to provision in HRD has improved in all countries during the last decades, while years of compulsory schooling have been increased, and provision in other key fields of HRD has been introduced and extended; despite limited capacities and occasional lack of coordination, institutional, capacities to promote HRD have been increased and consolidated; “future skills” are already part of HRD programmes in different key fields; and training of teaching personnel in AMS is regulated and thus strives for broader implementation of firm standards.

The report concluded with hypotheses for further reflection and debate; the first being the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardising gains to date, which makes an urgent case for new investment in HRD/LLL policies.

“Over the past decades, many AMS have made considerable progress in improving their record in HRD/LLL. The COVID-19 pandemic jeopardises these gains, with foreseeable implications such as reduced fiscal space for public spending and setbacks in many economic sectors. Urgent action is needed to protect advances already won in HRD policies, particularly with regard to the vulnerable groups in society,” it said.

A second hypothesis shared was the changing of the world of work globally, thus starting points in HRD to combat the challenges are different.

“Economies are interdependent on a global scale; digital transformation is a ubiquitous phenomenon challenging policy in all countries. The nature of both workforces and workplaces has changed significantly. However, resources and opportunities to deal with these challenges vary considerably across AMS. This requires measures on a regional level to counteract the ‘Matthew effect’ (Merton) of accumulated advantage making the better-off stronger and the underprivileged poorer.”

The study also stated that vulnerable groups are most at risk in a changing world of work. “COVID-19 revealed the vulnerability of all nations, but most of all of the vulnerable groups in the AMS. For example, first reports on COVID-19’s impact suggest that the groups most affected negatively by closure of schools are children from disadvantaged social groups. These insights back up the view that technological developments often run the risk of discriminating against the vulnerable in society. Thus, inclusive education on a larger scale is more important than ever.”

A fourth point is that HRD is more than an instrument for promoting economic goals. “HRD is not an end in itself. Undoubtedly, HRD is an important measure for promoting economic goals such as higher growth, productivity, prosperity or competitiveness. But it is more than that. If implemented well, it can also contribute to the enhancement of cohesion and social integration in society and may become a driver of poverty reduction. On the individual level, it can contribute to personal development, self-fulfilment, agility and trust in society and public institutions. Non-economic goals are often prominent in rhetoric, but in practice do not attract the same weight as economic targets.”

Fifthly, the report stated that HRD is not an event but a journey with different time-horizons. “As learning is not just a passage before working life starts but a companion embracing all ages, HRD also needs a multi-dimensional perspective addressing immediate, medium-term and transitional requirements. As a result, HRD takes care of short-term re-skilling needs, addresses medium-term skills development needs due to substantial changes in working processes and respective role profiles, and pro-actively prepares organisations and individuals for long-term fundamental transformation processes in society and working life.”

Lastly, the study stated that high-quality HRD strives for sustainable, deep learning approaches. “In order to become sustainable, HRD approaches need to reach deeper levels of learning and development activities within the framework of learner-centred pedagogy. Memorising facts and content as well as reproducing routine tasks may make up (a smaller) part of learning processes but are insufficient in themselves. Future skills embrace the acquisition of cognitive processes, skills and attitudes which cannot easily be replaced by technology but are more demanding to learn. What counts in the future are dispositions such as social skills, resilience, dealing with complexity and uncertainty, self-efficacy, and the like.

“All considerations and analysis may be summarised in the final statement: HRD/LLL is no longer an option but a necessity,” the study added.