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Nurturing a sustainable workforce for ASEAN: lifelong learning, cross-training, coordinated collaboration and innovation

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By Alex Hong

· 16 min read


Introduction

In an era when global sustainability and climate change mitigation have taken centre stage, the need for a workforce well-versed in sustainability principles has never been greater. The symbiotic relationship between tackling climate concerns and developing an adaptive workforce exemplifies the complex interplay between economic success, environmental stewardship, and social well-being. The importance of ongoing learning and skill improvement becomes clear as the globe navigates a more digitised and AI-dependent global economy.

This opinion piece examines the relationship between workforce development, lifelong learning, and climate action, with a focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In this region of rich cultural diversity, shared vulnerabilities, and transformative potential, creating an ecosystem that fosters lifelong learning and cross-training is not just a strategy, but a requirement for supporting and accelerating climate change mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development. As ASEAN nations attempt to integrate their efforts and goals, the development of a workforce equipped with sustainability skills emerges as a beacon of hope, propelling common initiatives, increasing international influence, and ensuring a bright future for the entire region.

The intersection of global sustainability, climate change, and workforce development

The interwoven issues of global sustainability and climate change have ushered in a new era in which the economic, environmental, and social landscapes are more intertwined than ever before. The need to address climate change has put enormous pressure on enterprises and society around the world. The recognition that a well-prepared, adaptable workforce is critical to successful climate change mitigation, adaptation, and future regeneration is central to this endeavour.

The need for a learning and adaptable workforce in the AI-driven global economy

The traditional concept of static talents (or learning one skill to use for an entire lifetime) is becoming outmoded as we navigate an AI-driven global economy marked by rapid technology breakthroughs. The nature of work is changing as a result of automation and digitization, demanding a paradigm shift towards continual learning. According to the World Economic Forum's "Future of Jobs" report, by 2025, the abilities required in most work categories will have evolved dramatically, with greater demand for critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and emotional intelligence.

Some economies in ASEAN are also facing rapidly ageing workforce and most of the incentives to encourage childbirth do not seem to work for matured economies. It is noted that one in four Singaporeans will be 65 years old and above by 2030 (25% of the population). ASEAN member countries need to understand the positive applications of AI to create greater efficiency for an ever shrinking working population. This will require the creative use of continuous education and training even after formal education and the change in the citizen’s mindset towards employment and work. Repetitive work can be replaced by robotics and AI while human resources would need to be redefined so that they can be optimised to work with AI augmentation in the future. AI and technology would need to be regulated while optimised to create force multiplication for economies. 

The relevance of ASEAN's unique context and potential for shared initiatives

ASEAN is uniquely placed to leverage the power of collaborative initiatives in the pursuit of sustainability. ASEAN, which consists of ten culturally varied member countries, has a combined population of over 650 million people and a GDP of over $3 trillion. The region's natural resources, ecosystems, and vulnerability to climate change highlight the importance of a coordinated approach to sustainability.

The region's geopolitical prominence, combined with its rising economic growth, presents an ideal opportunity for member countries to unite around common goals. Education and human resource development are highlighted as key components for regional integration and progress in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint.

In the face of common environmental issues like sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and ecological degradation, the region stands to benefit greatly from a workforce with sustainability capabilities. ASEAN can meet the current imperatives of climate change while also paving the road for a prosperous, resilient, and sustainable future by developing a culture of lifelong learning and cross-border collaboration.

The nexus of workforce development and sustainability

The evolving skill sets required for climate change mitigation and adaptation

Climate change requires a radical reassessment of established skill sets. As industries shift towards sustainability, a slew of new talents emerge as essential. Renewable energy technology, circular economy practises, and sustainable urban design are just a few examples of fields that necessitate specialised knowledge. Furthermore, studies from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasise the importance of learning skills to handle climate hazards such as extreme weather events and water scarcity.

The Climate Change Master Plan in Thailand has boosted skill development in areas such as energy efficiency, waste management, and disaster risk reduction. This project emphasises the significance of coordinating workforce development with climate adaptation initiatives.

Lifelong learning as a cornerstone of workforce resilience

Individuals must be able to adapt to the dynamic needs of the modern economy through lifelong learning. According to the World Bank, roughly two-thirds of occupations in developing nations may demand skills that present education systems can not provide by 2030. The ability to upskill and reskill on a constant basis will define workforce resilience, allowing professionals to remain competitive in an ever-changing job landscape.

Singapore's SkillsFuture is a national training initiative that encourages citizens to take charge of their education by providing subsidies and grants for a variety of courses. This forward-thinking strategy recognises the importance of educated and adaptable people for long-term economic prosperity. Future tweaks of this initiative should yield better results to encourage more corporations and Singaporeans to retrain themselves towards future-ready skills that enable greater efficiency with human ingenuity. 

Cross-training for multidisciplinary expertise and innovation

The interdependence of sustainability concerns necessitates diverse responses. The ability to think across disciplines improves problem-solving and fosters innovation. Professionals who can integrate many knowledge fields are better positioned to develop holistic solutions to complex environmental and societal concerns.

The Philippines' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Academy supports cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration to achieve the SDGs. This effort shows the potential of cross-training to support sustainable development by building relationships between academia, government, and industry.

Creating an ecosystem for continuous education

Rethinking education systems for lifelong learning

The transition to sustainability necessitates a fundamental reform in educational systems. Rather than viewing education as a one-time event, communities must make lifelong learning a primary value. This entails not just revising curricula to incorporate sustainability concepts, but also cultivating a culture in which individuals are encouraged to seek out new knowledge and skills on a regular basis.

Malaysia's National Policy on Industry 4.0 emphasises worker upskilling and reskilling to tackle the Fourth Industrial Revolution's difficulties. This approach recognises the importance of connecting education with technological advances for long-term economic competitiveness.

Leveraging digital platforms and technology for accessible education

Digital platforms have democratised education by breaking down geographical borders and making learning available to a broad audience. Online courses, virtual seminars, and educational apps provide flexible learning opportunities that accommodate a variety of learning styles and schedules. Embracing technology can help to bridge educational access gaps and speed the acquisition of sustainability skills.

Indonesia's Merdeka Belajar project uses online learning platforms and cooperation with technology businesses to give learning possibilities outside of regular classrooms. This effort shows the potential of technology to enable individuals to gain skills in line with the demands of a sustainable future.

Promoting flexible work arrangements to accommodate learning

The old concept of work and learning as distinct domains is increasingly becoming obsolete. Employers, employees, and governments must work together to develop conditions that allow for concurrent work and learning. Flexible work arrangements, such as reduced hours or remote work alternatives, can enable people to further their education without jeopardising their career advancement.

In Thailand, the "Flexi-Work" programme encourages businesses to offer flexible work choices to their employees, creating a better work-life balance and allowing for ongoing education. This initiative recognises that incorporating learning into work routines helps to improve overall workforce well-being.

Government's role in nurturing a sustainable workforce

Policy frameworks that incentivize continuous education and skill development

Government-led policy frameworks play a critical role in determining the development of a workforce skilled in sustainability. Governments can encourage individuals to participate in their own progress while also contributing to the promotion of sustainable practises by providing incentives for continued education and skill development. Policies that provide tax breaks, grants, and subsidies for education and training programmes might encourage professionals to gain the skills required in a quickly changing employment market.

In the Philippines, the TESDA Online Programme provides free online courses in a variety of areas, including sustainability. This programme demonstrates the effectiveness of government-led education initiatives in improving workforce skills.

Investment in sustainable industries and green technologies

Governments hold the key to accelerating investment in green businesses and technologies. Governments can create a demand for a workforce with specialised sustainability skills by channelling resources into these areas. Skilled workers are in high demand in fields such as clean energy, waste management, sustainable agriculture, and eco-tourism. Investment in these sectors benefits not only the environment but also job creation and economic growth.

Vietnam's Renewable Energy Development Strategy establishes lofty goals for renewable energy capacity and production. This concept exemplifies how integrating economic development goals with sustainable practises can result in a thriving market for qualified individuals.

Collaborative partnerships between governments, academia, and the private sector

The collaboration of governments, universities, and the corporate sector is critical for developing a workforce with sustainability skills. Governments can support collaborations that guarantee education and training programmes are in line with industry needs. Academia can modify curricula to incorporate sustainable concepts, while the private sector can provide practical insights and experience learning opportunities.

In Singapore, the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme encourages collaboration between educational institutions and employers in order to provide structured on-the-job training. This programme shows how multi-stakeholder collaboration overcomes the theoretical-practical knowledge divide. I do think there is much scope for the SkillsFuture programme to provide support to organisation to help them plan and scope their re-training needs towards important national transformation activities such as digitalisation, sustainability and ESG compliance/reporting.

Fostering a collaborative cross-border workforce

Building a shared ASEAN identity and ethos

The concept of a shared ASEAN identity is critical in developing a cross-border collaborative workforce. ASEAN member countries may build a common ethos that transcends national boundaries by boosting cultural understanding, fostering a sense of solidarity, and recognising variety within the region. This shared identity has the potential to be a driving force behind joint environmental projects and mutual support among member countries.

The ASEAN Cultural Legacy Digital Archive initiative seeks to preserve and showcase the region's rich cultural legacy. This project helps member countries establish a shared identity by presenting ASEAN's unique cultural tapestry. There could also be a possibility to actually create a blockchain enabled ASEAN digital ID that would propel us towards a shared ASEAN digital vision. This would require member countries to work closely to bring every digital economy towards a much higher level so that such alignment and integration can take place. 

Facilitating mobility and knowledge exchange across member countries

Skilled professional mobility and knowledge sharing are critical components of a cross-border workforce. By removing barriers to labour movement throughout the ASEAN area, experts and experience may be shared, increasing the talent pool and driving the spread of sustainability capabilities. Openness to international experiences fosters a workforce capable of collaborating effectively on regional and global sustainability concerns.

The ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangement on Tourism Professionals allows qualification recognition among ASEAN member countries. This effort demonstrates how lowering mobility obstacles can boost cross-border collaboration in critical industries for sustainability.

Establishing cross-border innovation hubs and joint projects

ASEAN member countries might build innovation hubs and joint projects centred on sustainability to enable cross-border collaboration. These hubs can function as research, development, and capacity-building centres, bringing together specialists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers from several countries to work towards similar goals. Joint projects can use complementary skills to collectively address complicated sustainability concerns.

The ASEAN Smart Cities Network encourages member cities to share best practises and innovative solutions. Through cross-border knowledge sharing, this network illustrates how collaborative hubs can drive sustainable urban growth. Networks such as smart energy and transportation grid to achieve greater regional energy security and transportation efficiency. The creation of smart cities will have a wealth of ESG data and analytics that can act as case studies to further enhance ASEAN’s commitment towards energy-efficient and community-centric (sustainable) urban development.

ASEAN initiatives for a sustainability-trained workforce

Showcasing best practices within member countries

There is a variety of best practises in sustainability education and skill development across the different tapestry of ASEAN member countries. Sharing these success stories can motivate other countries and build a healthy competitive spirit. Member countries can learn from one another and accelerate their efforts to establish a workforce skilled in sustainability by highlighting innovative approaches and successful achievements.

The ASEAN Sustainable Urban Development programme collects and disseminates best practises in urban sustainability from ASEAN member countries. This effort exemplifies how sharing best practises may spur progress in sustainable urban planning.

Developing regional certification standards for sustainability skills

It is critical to standardise sustainability skills throughout ASEAN member countries in order to ensure a uniform level of competency. ASEAN may establish a baseline for sustainability-related knowledge and competencies by adopting regional certification standards. Such criteria can increase the reputation of sustainability-trained professionals while also facilitating regional labour mobility.

For example, the ASEAN Green Building Professional Certification programme creates a single certification standard for green building professionals. This effort demonstrates how regional certification systems may be used to improve sustainability capabilities.

Hosting cross-ASEAN sustainability competitions and challenges

Friendly competition among ASEAN member countries can boost efforts to acquire sustainability capabilities. Hosting cross-ASEAN sustainability competitions and challenges can foster innovation, information sharing, and the implementation of sustainable practises in real-world circumstances. These gatherings can also build a sense of community and collective commitment among member countries. The understanding that there need not be a zero-sum game in ASEAN economy/political relationships and the concept of coordinated collaboration or even coopetition (cooperative competition) can create opportunities for everyone in the region. The concept of shared prosperity must not only be part of speech-making but also be an actionable outcome of being part of ASEAN. 

The ASEAN Energy Awards recognise exceptional achievements in energy efficiency and conservation throughout the region. This prize exemplifies how healthy competition may spur innovation in sustainable energy practises.

Implications of a sustainability-trained workforce

Enhanced resilience to global shocks and uncertainties

A workforce schooled in sustainability gives ASEAN member countries the resilience they need to overcome the unpredictability of global problems. As the globe faces more frequent and severe disruptions, such as pandemics, natural catastrophes, and economic shocks, a workforce trained in sustainability can react quickly, invent solutions, and assure the continuity of key services. This adaptability adds to the economic and social stability of local communities. Beyond being adequately trained, the workforce will need to embrace a collaborative working environment and be able to work in a culturally diverse environment. The ability to have empathy and to be able to contextualised the varying needs of different communities can add to the success of regional sustainability projects. 

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines' disaster management authorities devised innovative tactics that reduced the impact of succeeding storms with the help of competent personnel. These initiatives highlight the importance of preparedness and adaptive abilities in the face of climate uncertainties.

Accelerated climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts

A workforce with sustainability skills can considerably accelerate climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Professionals with a comprehensive understanding of renewable energy technologies, sustainable farming practises, eco-friendly urban design, and climate-resilient infrastructure can drive the adoption of real solutions. Their knowledge enables governments and companies to more effectively transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient pathways.

Indonesia's dedication to peatland restoration and sustainable forest management is strengthened by a competent workforce specialising in conservation, afforestation, and community engagement. This concentrated effort emphasises the critical role of specialised talents in carrying out complex climate change mitigation measures.

Strengthened ASEAN position in international sustainability dialogues

A sustainable workforce enables ASEAN to actively participate in international sustainability conversations and negotiations. Member countries with experienced delegates can effectively contribute to global deliberations on climate legislation, environmental protection, and sustainable development. A united demonstration of proficiency improves ASEAN's clout on the world stage and its ability to drive global environmental agendas.

The active participation of ASEAN member nations in COP negotiations and international environmental forums indicates the region's commitment to substantively contributing to global sustainability discussions. Skilled delegates increase ASEAN's credibility in lobbying for sustainable policies.

Forging a common ASEAN spirit for shared initiatives

Fostering a sense of unity and purpose among member countries

Effective cross-border cooperation is built on a common sense of unity and purpose. By emphasising shared goals and aspirations, ASEAN may transcend individual differences and forge a unified regional identity centred on sustainability. This unity catalyses collaborative projects that utilise the collective strength of member countries towards a more sustainable future.

The "ASEAN Youth Community" project develops a sense of belonging among the region's young, transcending borders and cultivating a united spirit. This initiative shows the potential of youth-led efforts to create harmony.

Overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers through effective communication

Overcoming cultural and linguistic obstacles within ASEAN requires effective communication. Language variety does not have to be a barrier to collaboration; rather, it may be used to your advantage. Investing in multilingual communication systems, translation services, and cultural sensitivity training can help to guarantee that information flows smoothly between member countries, building understanding and productive connections.

The "ASEAN Cultural Intelligence Programme" trains professionals in intercultural communication skills in order to promote effective cross-border contacts. This programme demonstrates the importance of cultural intelligence in encouraging peaceful collaboration.

Celebrating ASEAN successes in sustainability and education

Celebrating triumphs provides not only a source of encouragement but also a means of recognising member countries' efforts and achievements. ASEAN can display its progress to the world and promote continuing commitment to shared goals by highlighting achievements in sustainability and education. This festival strengthens the ASEAN spirit and inspires collective resolve.

The ASEAN Environmentally Sustainable Cities Award honours cities that excel in sustainable urban development. This award emphasises the significance of recognising accomplishments that lead to a more sustainable ASEAN.

Call to action for ASEAN

Mobilizing collective commitment to lifelong learning and sustainability

The moment has come for ASEAN member countries to come together in support of a shared commitment to lifelong learning and sustainability. Governments, educational institutions, organisations, and individuals must all recognise the critical need of preparing the workforce for complex global issues. This means accepting continuing education, upskilling, and reskilling as necessary practises that enable individuals to adapt and succeed in a quickly changing world.

Embracing the spirit of collaboration for a resilient and prosperous ASEAN

Coordinate collaboration is important to ASEAN's journey towards sustainability. The difficulties that lay ahead are enormous, necessitating cross-border collaboration. Member countries must adopt a collaborative spirit, seeking common ground and shared solutions. ASEAN can establish a path to a sustainable and successful future that benefits the region as a whole by combining resources, knowledge, and experience.

Pledging to prioritize cross-training, innovation, and climate action for a brighter future

Cross-training, innovation, and climate action are essential for an ASEAN workforce that is both sustainable and resilient. Governments must prioritise policies that stimulate continual learning, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the adoption of environmentally friendly practises. Industry leaders can champion innovation that is in line with long-term development goals. Individuals must take control of their learning journeys, realising that their abilities help shape the region's direction.

Conclusion

In a world filled with dynamic challenges and opportunities, ASEAN's commitment to producing a workforce skilled in sustainability is a ray of hope. A trained and adaptive workforce will be our most valuable asset as we navigate a future filled with climate uncertainties and technological changes. ASEAN may position itself as a worldwide leader in sustainability by developing a culture of lifelong learning, breaking down obstacles, and applauding accomplishments. The journey towards a prosperous, resilient, and sustainable ASEAN begins today, with a common goal, fuelled by collaboration, and guided by the imperative to provide a better future for all. ASEAN and its leaders will need to embrace our common values and work towards the ideals of coordinated collaboration to fast track the region towards knowledge-led prosperity. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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