The employment skill transformation

May 22, 2021 | 08:00
All this talk of “modern, human, 21st century, soft, cognitive, transformed and 4.0” skills – what does it actually mean in practical terms? The simple answer is; a person’s ability to do a modern job. I prefer to call the new competency requirements “common sense survival skills”.
1544 p24 the employment skill transformation
Colin Blackwell - Chairman of HR Committee Vietnam Business Forum

Computers are really good at being computers. They can calculate, memorise, and process tasks much better than any person. For those types of tasks, humans are comparatively slow, inefficient, and prone to mistakes. In the modern economy, nobody can expect to be paid to do something a computer will do faster, cheaper, and better.

Whilst humans are bad at being computers, they are – as one would hope – rather good at being humans. The things humans can do that computers cannot include creativity, context, empathy, persuasion, and lateral thinking. Jobs that require such skills are increasing and people with those skills are in high demand globally.

This leads to progress and opportunity, but rapid transformation also carries the risk of disruption. One would expect young people to be the quickest to adapt to technology and what that means for the modern economy. They cannot do it entirely by themselves though – they need support to be productively employed. It is not only important for them individually, but also essential to raise labour productivity on Vietnam’s path to becoming a developed nation.

Vietnam is not alone in facing these barriers and prospects. All countries are trying to find the optimal path to success and are often sharing knowledge on how to do so. For example, my own social enterprise is a member of a World Bank-convened group of organisations sharing information on how to help disadvantaged youth gain quality employment. We compare our experiences and learnings from many different countries to have a combined positive social impact. What emerges is the need for alignment between education, business, and government policies towards a common goal of workforce modernisation.

Extensive research by organisations such as the United Nations has shown that human skills are gained mostly during childhood development. The biggest predictor of future career earnings is the development of cognitive skills up to the age of six. Effective modern early years education gives an enormous boost to any country’s future economic potential. Everywhere, education is being modernised away from teaching people to be computers – as stated earlier, humans are not generally good at memorising, repeating, and routine.

Thankfully those skills are mostly worthless for children to learn, as computers already have that covered. Children love learning human skills like empathy and lateral thinking as it is much more fun – more like playing constructive intelligence building games, rather than boring and outdated “repeat after teacher”.

As an example, anybody over the age of twelve can learn the Python programming language in a couple of hours watching a free online video. Python is the language of controlling AI and is way better than the older coding languages. Python is not even really code as it is in quite understandable English that is easy for anyone to read.

As it is so easy, people do not need certificates to prove they can do it – either they can or they cannot. It is a bit like the technical skills required to use Facebook or Google – it is intuitive not technical. If any of us put an official looking certificate framed and hung on their office wall saying “I can use Facebook” people would, of course, laugh.

In the old business world of some years ago, things followed predictable simple rules. Before computers were common, people needed to memorise technical skills, which would take years, and a piece of paper with a stamp on confirming they had done this was important.

But in the new world of online information and continuous learning, pieces of paper confirming qualifications become less aligned with actual business requirements. Tertiary education is still valuable, but only if aligned with modern employability skills. For example, one hears stories that in western countries, many delivery drivers have master’s degrees – in their case it is clear their education did not match their ambitions for employment.

Fortunately for businesses, there are much more efficient measures than pieces of paper when they wish to recruit people with the skills they need. Work-based technical tests, examples of already having done tasks, and online ratings all are much better predictors of work performance.

This is all where policy comes in to help. In Vietnam, the government has recognised the challenge and is actively moving vocational training towards proven, practical skills that businesses are asking for. There is a concerted effort to modernise especially domestic small enterprises to modern business, recruitment, and human resources management practices. The new Labour Code emphasises continuous learning and is specifically adapted to modern economy “knowledge jobs”. There will be easy efficiency gains as policy moves businesses away from old fashioned checklists towards more dynamic, future-proof systems.

By Colin Blackwell

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