Bernardo M. Villegas
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Preparing Knowledge Workers for ASEAN

          Last August 16, 2013, I gave a talk to parents and teachers of Woodrose School for Girls at the Ayala Alabang subdivision on how to prepare their children for their future careers.  Since I could assume realistically that their daughters, coming from middle income and high income families (together with very bright children of low-income families who have received generous scholarships), will surely go to college and pursue some professional specialization or another, I painted for them the bright future that the Philippine economy faces within the equally favorable environment in the Southeast Asian region, one of the remaining bastions of fast growth in the global economy today.  So that they did not have to take my word for it (they know me too well as the "prophet of boom" who has always been optimistic even in the direst circumstances), I had recourse to an outside and objective view about the bright prospects faced by the Philippines and the ASEAN.  I cited a commentary written by Mr. Jaspal Bindra, CEO Asia of one of the leading UK banks, Standard Chartered that appeared in the Business World last April 26 -27, 2013.

          From my readings of other assessments from foreign banks, international agencies and country analysts from all over the world, I can say that the opinion expressed by Mr. Bindra is not unique.  Let me quote from his commentary:  "If it were a single economy, ASEAN (which also counts Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) would be the world's ninth largest by GDP--bigger than India and Russia--and is third most populous with 600 million people.  A growing center of trade, ASEAN is increasingly where the action is with corporates busy setting up distribution, sourcing and manufacturing to capture opportunities within the ten markets and more widely across Asia.  Strategically placed across important new trade corridors, ASEAN is part of the world's biggest regional trade agreement (measured by population with China, India, Korea, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.)  This ASEAN plus six grouping represent around a third of the world's GDP and almost half of its population."

          Then Mr. Bindra continues to describe how in 2011, China overtook the EU as ASEAN's largest trading partner, emphasizing the attractiveness of ASEAN as a hub from which to connect with customers across Asia.  He also anticipated the vast opportunities that the emergence of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 will present for both corporations and individuals.  The East Asian financial crisis in 1997 to 2000 was actually a blessing in disguise because it gave the member countries of the ASEAN strong motivations to put their respective houses in order.  As Mr. Bindra points out:  "Lower debt, stronger banking sectors and more robust balances of payments all help to cushion ASEAN against external shocks, as evident during the latest crisis.  The Philippines was just upgraded to investment grade, following in the footsteps of Indonesia last year.  And despite outperforming the rest of the world for years, ASEAN still has plenty of room for growth, with trade, a growing middle class, burgeoning consumerism and urbanization all acting as strong drivers." 

          Given this upbeat scenario, I told the parents and teachers that the so-called sunrise industries are almost unlimited:  agribusiness, telecom, transport, tourism, IT and IT-oriented services, health care, infrastructures of all types, education, logistics, the creative industries, etc.  Their children can choose the traditional courses like accounting, business administration, law, architecture, medicine, nursing, information technology and engineering and will have no problem being employed or starting businesses of their own if they are entrepreneurial in these sunrise industries.  I gave, however, the greatest emphasis to science and engineering for their children who are comfortable with mathematics and the quantitative sciences.  I expressed the opinion that the Philippines, following the example of Singapore and South Korea, can avoid the so-called "middle-income trap", if we can devote a portion of our highly educated manpower to excel in the knowledge economies.  Because the Philippines still has a young and growing population, we can have human resources for all sectors of an emerging market:  farmers and farm workers to work more productively in the countryside; factory workers in the increased number of manufacturing enterprises that are relocating to the Philippines from Northeast Asia; service workers for the burgeoning BPO and tourism sectors; and highly skilled engineers and scientists who will be employed in the knowledge industries such as those in IT and software, biotechnology and material sciences (the three areas that will define the technological breakthroughs in the twenty first century).

 

          Mr. Bindu N. Lohani, the vice-president for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development of the Asian Development Bank, has advised ASEAN countries not to neglect the development of the knowledge industries.  In a commentary that also appeared in the Business World, Mr. Lohani wrote, "building knowledge economies is increasingly seen as the most sustainable way of driving growth while providing citizens with higher incomes and more fulfilling work."  This task will have to be jointly undertaken by academe, business and the government.  It is imperative that we start orienting the brightest of our youth to choose careers in engineering and the sciences that will bolster the knowledge economies in the future.  Fortunately, we have enough graduates from our secondary schools who are pursuing tertiary education.  We do not have the problem of countries like Singapore and all the Northeast Asian countries who are already suffering from the so-called demographic winter.  If we play our cards right, we can eradicate poverty over the next twenty years by promoting traditional agricultural, manufacturing and services that can absorb the vast majority of our working population while still having enough educated manpower to focus on the knowledge industries.  For us, it is not a case of either or.   I am encouraging the parents, not only of the Woodrose students but other parents of graduating high school students to inspire their children who have the mental aptitude and work attitudes to choose those careers that can give us a chance in the future to compete with Singapore and other Asian countries in building up the knowledge-intensive industries that will be our ticket out of the middle-income trap.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.