USAID Focusing on Workforce Development in Southeast Asia

By Elizabeth Melampy

A recent USAID study points out that 80 percent of employers in Southeast Asia want to hire more workers, but only 15 percent think education systems are adequately preparing the workforce for available jobs. This difference between employers’ needs and the workforce’s skills is known as a ‘skills gap,’ and workforce training programs are one of the best ways to minimize this gap. Donors and host country governments have leaned on STEM-AT (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, accounting, and tourism) training initiatives to meet these needs, to meet private sector demand, and to create more competitive economies.

In 2014, USAID established the ‘Connecting the Mekong through Education and Training’ (COMET) program to help meet these needs and help create a more competitive workforce in Southeast Asia. The five-year initiative works closely with the private sector to train students in 12 universities and 90 vocational centers across Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia in STEM-oriented programs to help secure employment in the region. USAID has organized workforce training in the past, but in the last five years has renewed efforts to build a workforce to meet the specific demands of the markets in developing regions.  In addition, the initiative builds on the Obama administration’s ‘Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative’ (YSEALI) and the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) to enable job-ready graduates with practical education.

Students at Saigon International University in Vietnam.

Students at Saigon International University in Vietnam.

Implementer Educational Development Center (EDC) was awarded $12 million to create the curriculum for COMET. EDC works with private sector partners to establish a curriculum based on vocational skills; Google is the primary partner, but other tech giants including Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Dutch Mill have all worked with EDC in some capacity. In addition, National Instruments (NI) recently connected with USAID, promising $4.5 million in support for USAID COMET and other Southeast Asia-based projects, providing technological resources for these initiatives.

While the development agenda on education seems to have been straightforward until now—people should go to school—a population’s need for education may be more nuanced. Donors and host country governments should be prepared to answer the fundamental question: should education allow for people to reach a certain threshold of common knowledge, with anything beyond that not required? Or should education ultimately serve to prepare the workforce for a competitive role in the job market?

The answer to each question might depend on who is in charge of education, the public or private sector. On the one hand, education seems to be part of a developmental shift, where the educational needs of a population change as the region develops. Establishing public primary and secondary education comes first, and then universities and higher education follow. In between those two phases is the possibility of a skills gap if the job markets develop faster than the public education sector.

On the other hand, it is important to understand that this skills gap is not unique to Southeast Asia, or even to developing regions. Education systems are changing everywhere; for example, U.S. universities in recent years have received unprecedented levels of funding for STEM programs in an attempt to meet the growing demands of the technology job market. More importantly, developing countries are not less connected to the STEM-based job market than Western ones. Tech-driven economic growth presents an even larger opportunity for developing countries, and ignoring the technology sector might even limit their development trajectory. The private sector can play a pivotal role in encouraging tech-based vocational education, as is happening with COMET in Southeast Asia. There are, of course, additional concerns that vocational education alone won’t fix—gender-based discrimination in the technology sector being a huge one. Providing education that moves in tandem with the technology job market, in addition to traditional primary education, will nonetheless provide a needed boost in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Elizabeth Melampy is a Researcher with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development.

Photo: “GD&HT tai SIU” by AHS – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

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