As Southeast Asian countries continue to battle with a surge in COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, the region, which has a working-age population of over 500 million people, has experienced unprecedented labor market disruptions.
According to a report by the International Labor Organization, the impact of the pandemic has resulted in increased workloads and longer work hours for some. For others, it represented losing their job and income reductions.
The study highlights that in 2021, 9.3 million fewer workers are projected to be employed in the region due to the pandemic, with women and young workers as the most affected groups. In 2020, 7.8% of labor income was lost in the ASEAN region, which is equivalent to about USD 100 million, or 3.3% of the region’s gross domestic product of 2019.
Seek Asia, the parent company of Asia-focused job portals JobStreet and JobsDB, is one of the firms that has seen shifts in the labor market first-hand. The company’s CEO, Peter Bithos, says that the COVID-19 disruption brings challenges but also opportunities for Southeast Asia.
“In Singapore, for example, there are several sectors that have been impacted by COVID-19, such as traditional manufacturing and administration jobs. Singapore has lost somewhere in the neighborhood of up to 200,000 jobs in declining industries,” he told KrASIA. “Meanwhile, there are growing opportunities in sectors like healthcare, tech, and financial services, bringing in about 100,000 new jobs.”
“There is a dramatic difference in skill gaps, where people who worked in declining industries don’t have the right skills to work in emerging industries. So the talent crunch is not that there are not enough people; it’s that there are not enough skilled people,” he added.
Bithos unpacked other labor market shifts and offered an outlook for what the post-COVID job market in Asia might look like in a recent interview with KrASIA.
KrASIA (Kr): How has the labor market in Southeast Asia been affected by COVID-19 so far? What are some key shifts?
Peter Bithos (PB): The pandemic has caused employees to think about what they value most in the job. It has changed the perception of working and impacted the types of jobs. It disrupted certain industries, including hospitality, tourism, and entertainment. Now, both employers and employees want to adopt a more flexible working style with both face-to-face and remote working options. For example, 80% of the workforce across Asia still wants some form of face-to-face interaction.
Workers across Southeast Asia have started to realize the benefits of working from home, which allows them to spend more time with their families or on their own. However, the majority of people don’t want to work completely in a remote manner. Another accelerating trend is that there are fewer people who want to work abroad. The situation is very different from the findings in the past, in which the majority of Asians would want to work somewhere else.
Kr: We’ve seen efforts to beef up the tech talent pipeline, but what should employers do to retain talent? What is the position of government when pushing things forward?
PB: Financial security is now much more important than it was in 2019. People now want safety, security, and stability. The employee turnover rate is growing slowly this year, meaning fewer people are changing their jobs this year.
Employers need to focus on offering a safe and secure job, meaning that the employer should look at employees’ physical well-being and financial compensation. There’s so much burnout happening after almost two years of Zoom meetings. Because of the skill gap, people can leave for a new job with better pay very quickly, so a better payment is important to retain talent.
From the government’s perspective, temporary measures like subsidies will not work in the long term. The long-term matter is how we could take a big group of people who are not equipped with digital skills to be productive in the workplace. There is a long way to go before we figure out how to craft a sustainable solution.
Kr: What will the post-COVID job market in Asia look like?
PB: People are worried to a level that it affects their happiness and well-being. We see that 46% of workers in their 20s, and 41% of employees in their 30s, worry that automation will replace them in the labor market. Companies need to provide the certainty and security that new roles will be created, even if there are roles that will change. Indeed, not a lot of roles are going to be totally blown away. It won’t happen in the next five years.
In many of the economies in Asia like Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Australia, the aging workforce will become a huge factor—we are going to have millions of workers in their 60s and 70s, representing a massive skill gap between what we have and what we need. How we tackle that as a society and as a workplace is an important part of the equation to achieve a more vibrant and inclusive economy.
The second thing is the work in decline versus the work that’s growing, also from a diversity standpoint. The tech industry is relatively more male-skewed, so how we can help women of all ages adapt to the future workforce will be an important topic for both employers and governments.