As technology transforms globally, digital tools actively complement human labour to improve work efficiency and productivity. In Southeast Asia, artificial intelligence (AI) – a rapidly developing digital tool – is expected to have significant implications for skill requirements and employment. However, unlike other parts of the Global South, the region is able to take advantage of technological disruptions but not without overcoming significant challenges that impede inclusive growth.
Gender disparities emerging from the uneven impact of digital advancement is one such challenge. In Southeast Asia, men and women dominate different sectors and occupations, have differential access to skills and technology, and unequally engage in household responsibilities. A key step to assuring that women in Southeast Asia can obtain quality employment, in light of rapid technological changes, is to review region’s skill development systems and determine how they can be improved.
But with many challenges galore, it begs the question: what is so special about our new co-worker AI that has got so many people talking about it in recent years? For one thing, its ability is astounding. It can learn from massive amounts of data to comprehend, rationalize, perform complex actions, and invent new solutions. Secondly, its adoption rate has been rapid. Globally, AI adoption has more than doubled from 2017 to 2022, according to a recent McKinsey Global Survey. In Southeast Asia, Kearney and EDBI estimated that AI will be able to uplift the region’s GDP by USD 1 trillion by 2030. Despite the fact that AI adoption in this region is still in its early stages, the technology has been deployed to manage supply chains, provide digital banking, deliver telemedicine services, power agricultural drones, and monitor crops and biodiversity amongst other things. AI and other digital technologies have also contributed to the rise of the platform economy and super apps. With the rapid growth in this technology, several ASEAN-wide and national AI strategies have been established to promote AI innovation and application. However, most technology-related policies in the region have a weak focus on building inclusiveness.
The Impact of AI on Employment
The impact of AI on employment will be diverse, depending on one’s occupation, skills, and background. Certainly, AI has helped create more jobs—for example, AI developers, machine learning engineers, data engineers, data scientists, and technology consultants. In addition, AI-enabled digital platforms have allowed many people to engage in income-generating activities online.
On the contrary, AI will displace many workers in certain industries and jobs. As the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future has pointed out, this is especially true for those working in middle-tier jobs, which involve tasks that could be done by AI—e.g. information-gathering, organizational, and calculation tasks. Meanwhile, high-skill workers can likely reap benefits from technological disruptions, using AI to increase productivity; whereas those in low-wage occupations tend not to be easily displaced by AI because their jobs usually require physical presence and dexterity of humans that technology cannot yet replace.
It is critical, then, to leverage AI as a tool that augments human labour instead of displacing it. To ensure this, however, the workforce of Southeast Asia will need to possess skills that are increasingly in demand as a result of the technological change, including digital literacy and digital skills, cognitive and socioemotional skills, and technical and vocational skills.
This harmonization is especially critical for women, who are underrepresented in STEM and ICT fields in Southeast Asia. This exclusion makes it harder for them to benefit from the growth of AI-related employment and occupations in the broader digital industry. And despite the existence of digital platforms that facilitate women’s access to employment activities, platform-mediated work continues to face a number of challenges, including a lack of social protection, job security, and safety regulations.
Furthermore, large proportions of women workers are employed in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants, and professional services, all of which will be heavily impacted by technology adoption. Women also make up the majority of middle-skill workers, such as sales workers, administrative support workers, and assembly line workers, who will see strong AI-induced displacement effects. Most critically, however, are the limits on women’s time – even when they have comparable access to digital, cognitive, and socioemotional skill development opportunities, women often have less time to upskill or reskill due to care-related and domestic responsibilities.
To address some of these challenges and leverage technological disruption effectively, JustJobs Network and the Kenan Foundation Asia have joined forces to develop policy recommendations to ensure Southeast Asia’s workforce development systems adapt well and fast. As stated above, it is critical to ensure pathways for women to acquire quality and well-remunerated forms of employment. The study will speak to skills development, women, and technology, with a focus on AI in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. A regional brief will be produced from the research and will constitute one of the five regional briefs under the broader Gender, AI, and Digital Skills project, which covers South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Middle East and North Africa.