Developing Countries Should Find Their Own Path for Skills Development and Training

Asia's developing countries must innovate to upgrade their technical skills training. Photo: Pete Wright
Asia's developing countries must innovate to upgrade their technical skills training. Photo: Pete Wright

By Sungsup Ra, Ryotaro Hayashi

Less developed countries need not emulate wealthier ones when establishing their technical and vocational training systems.

Countries have been struggling during the pandemic to develop and maintain skilled labor, such as construction workers, to support their economies. Many countries depend on foreign skilled workers to fill such positions, yet many of these returned home as the pandemic situation worsened. Likewise, workers in tourism and hospitality were laid off and youth unemployment across countries soared.

To fill employment gaps and encourage economic recovery and even national security, governments have high expectations for technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Nonetheless, TVET faces issues such as social stigma, shortage of skilled instructors, and a lack of industry partnerships, hindering its ability to fulfill these expectations. Filling this gap will be a challenge.

 Most international good practices for TVET are from countries with a long tradition of technical training, and may not work in developing country contexts, including in Asia and the Pacific, according to a study authored by Ha Wei, Po Yang and Youngsup Choi. To apply such practices may require capacity that takes a long time to develop.

One such example is skills sector councils. These councils are comprised of industry representatives and experts and are often considered a standard approach to understanding industry demand for workers. There have been many attempts in the region to establish similar institutions. Yet, they have proved difficult in some countries and sectors.

The institutional set-ups consisting of industry representatives might work well in the mature industries typical in European countries. They developed organically in such places through relationships between guilds and industrial players built up over hundreds of years.

Developing countries, by contrast, particularly in emerging technology areas, do not always have a strong industry base to articulate needed skills requirements beyond the needs of their own companies.

Fortunately, alternative approaches are available without this institutional set up. In the early stages of economic development in the Republic of Korea, for instance, the government engaged 200 experts who largely came from universities or technical high schools, to set the scope and subjects for vocational training courses.

More than three experts were assigned for each occupation with at least one expert with industry experience expected to come up with training standards. This helped the government to increase technicians’ ratio of the overall workforce in 1960s.

In the People’s Republic of China, guided by the State Planning Commission and State Economic Commission, the Ministry of Labor led skills coordination and forecasting in the 1950s, particularly for state-owned enterprises in urban areas. Local governments have also played an active role in assessing industry skills demand in recent years.

For example, Suzhou Industrial Park which was established in 1994 is considered a successful economic development zone. Suzhou Industrial Park Human Resource Department (city government’s extension agency) plays an instrumental role for labor demand estimation, training, recruitment and employment support for firms within the industrial park.

Developing countries do not always have a strong industry base to articulate needed skills requirements beyond the needs of their own companies.

Another case is a comprehensive national qualifications framework which has been used in many highly developed countries but may not be necessary in the early stage of economic development in a country. It is true that qualifications are important to ensure social recognition for TVET graduates and comprehensive national qualifications frameworks can certainly help manage confusion and inconsistencies across different training programs.

Developing and maintaining such a framework, however, requires a high level of technical and institutional capacity and resources within a country. Even without a comprehensive framework, there is merit in flexibility in creating new vocational qualifications to meet emerging and rapidly changing demands.

In fact, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea developed their vocational qualification systems without a comprehensive national qualifications framework. This is a tough trial and error process for TVET policymakers and instructors, but is inevitable to develop good vocational courses for the benefit of students and job seekers.

 Developing a critical mass of skilled workforce in crucial industries will take time but it can be done by taking more practical and flexible approaches while leveraging available resources based on a country’s unique history and capacity. Learning through South-South cooperation or regional cooperation in similar contexts could be further enhanced for each developing country to come up with their own solutions.

In the People’s Republic of China, an old proverb recommends “crossing the river by touching the stones,” which means take one step and look around before taking another. The spirit of this pragmatic attitude can be adopted to find alternative approaches in TVET and help countries in Asia and the Pacific advance to the next stages of economic recovery and development.