TOKYO — In Japan, they're crying for telecommunications experts. China is scrambling for talented managers, while Malaysia needs technicians and engineers. The problem is even more basic in Thailand: Only 17% of the work force is educated beyond primary school, a liability likely to doom the nation to low-cost, labor-intensive industries unless corrected.
Asia's go-go economic growth has dazzled the world, but as the region looks toward the future, a formidable obstacle looms large: a growing shortage of skilled workers and managers. In nearly every country, rapid industrial growth is outstripping the level of education and job skills in the local work force, sounding alarms from Jakarta to Beijing.
More than dealing with poor infrastructure and a deteriorating environment, many experts say that Asia's most urgent need is massive investment in its own people.
"In our view, the biggest challenge of all facing Asia is education," warned a recent report by the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. "The problem is not simply too much illiteracy. . . . Rapid economic growth has led to a chronic mismatch of skills in some countries."
That lament is echoed throughout the region. "I can get capital, but how do I get the talented people to make use of the capital?" moaned Guo Quan, manager of the Dalian Port Railway Co. in China, in a recent article.
The shortage of skilled labor does not merely threaten future growth. According to a recent World Bank report, roughly one-quarter of all investment in rail systems, power plants and other infrastructure is wasted through technical inefficiencies largely due to poorly trained operators.
"China can pump all the billions of dollars it wants into its phone and rail systems. It will be money wasted, however, unless those responsible for operating these systems are educated in efficient management techniques," the Political & Economic Risk Consultancy report said.
Nearly every Asian country faces a shortage of engineers, scientists and technical staff. Malaysia produces 5,700 engineers annually; the yearly demand, however, is 10,000. South Korea plans to boost the number of engineering students from the current 280,000 to 340,000 in five years. To improve their practical skills, third-year students have begun receiving six months of on-the-job training at various industrial plants under a new government program; the term will double next year.
Even Japan, whose abundant base of engineering talent helped build its worldwide reputation for manufacturing prowess, has begun to sound alarms that its young people are losing interest in the field. The government recently formed a special committee, drawing members from every ministry, to find ways to increase the allure of science and technology.
Many countries also find shortfalls in management skills and English, the language of international commerce. For Kazuhiko Nishi, president of the Japanese software publishing firm ASCII Corp., the biggest difference in necessary job skills today compared to those when he started his firm 18 years ago is in English.
"It's an absolute must," said Nishi, a fluent English speaker who helped develop the nation's first personal computer and the world's first portable computer. "Eighteen years ago, the culture was very domestic. But today, everyone needs English, because interacting with the rest of the world has become a daily thing."
Yet English skills are eroding in countries ranging from Malaysia to the Philippines. One reason is that nationalist movements have promoted use of the local language in schools over what is regarded as the language of colonialists.
Management training is also in critical demand. Despite China's attraction, its inefficient state enterprises, employing 110 million workers who account for half the nation's industrial output, are in serious trouble. Half of them are unprofitable--and bad management is the major reason, according to a China Daily survey in June of 2,586 money-losing enterprises.
"If China is to become competitive in world markets in anything other than labor-intensive products, the nation must produce more, and better, managers," Asia Inc. magazine recently declared. "If it can't or won't, China--along with the rest of East Asia--will fail to fulfill its current economic promise."
Japan, whose management systems have been widely studied and often imitated, also faces a pressing need to change, argues Wolfgang Lux, president of AMA International Management Center in Tokyo. Although the old hierarchical system stressing lifetime employment and seniority-based pay and promotions worked for a rapidly growing economy, the slowdown has sharpened the need to increase productivity through more creativity--allowing employees more freedom and individual responsibility, for instance--and technology, he said. Only 10% of Japanese offices use personal computers, contrasted with 50% in the United States.