June 2024

Tech superpower: Southeast Asia’s bid for AI supremacy

How Southeast Asia is closing its AI talent gap to become a global tech leader

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Southeast Asia's hunt for highly skilled talent is driven by its desire to become the next global tech hub – especially in the field of artificial intelligence.

The region, however, faces a growing talent gap. More than half of businesses here (53%) report difficulties in hiring tech talent, according to data from the World Economic Forum.

This fundamental question stems from the mismatch between education and industry needs. Add to that the slow pace at which tertiary education programs are evolving to meet such needs.

Funding AI upskilling

This discrepancy is the reason an AI leader like Microsoft is directing millions of dollars to the region to upskill 2.5 million people in AI. The program focuses on talent from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Even prior to Microsoft’s 2024 funding initiative, the company was already paving the way for women in the region to upskill digitally. A few notable examples, who switched from non-technical careers to AI and analytics, are now reaping the benefits of their decision to continue learning.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, Nvidia is teaming up with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to support AI businesses. These, in turn, promise to develop Malaysian talent.

Aside from upskilling in AI, Malaysia also plans to train 60,000 semiconductor engineers as part of its ambition to become a global centre of chip production. Semiconductors, like those from Nvidia, play a crucial role in today's AI tech ecosystem.

Malaysia is also keen to attract other highly skilled tech talent and venture capitalists from overseas – offering the Unicorn Golden Pass and VC Golden Pass to international businesses and entrepreneurs who want to set up operations in the country.

IBM in the Philippines, meanwhile, aims to enhance local tech skills through the project SkillsBuild, which offers online courses in AI and similar tech for free, no matter the learners' profession or technical proficiency.

Singapore is touted as the regional leader in AI development, but it's also making sure no one is left behind in the transition. The government is thus paying for its citizens, especially mid-career workers, to take AI courses and keep pace with the digital transformation in their respective fields.

At the same time, the country also plans to triple its number of AI practitioners to 15,000.

To level the AI playing field for different segments of the workforce, Singapore is also expanding its AI Talent Bridge initiative – a partnership program with the US – specifically targeting women and younger learners to sharpen their digital competencies.

AI upskilling: New ways of learning

If, in previous decades, getting a college degree was a barrier to entry in the tech industry, today, companies – led by Big Tech – are more welcoming of talent who hone their skills through alternative learning pathways such as bootcamps, online courses, micro-credentials, and work-study programs.

As former IBM Chief Executive Ginni Rometty recently told People Matters in an exclusive interview: “Degree inflation has become an arbitrary gatekeeper, locking out millions of skilled individuals from accessing life-changing opportunities.”

Southeast Asia’s GDP growth from AI adoption

As investments start pouring in, Southeast Asia stands to benefit from the continuing expansion of AI-driven businesses in the region and across industries. In fact, a study by global management consulting firm Kearney predicts wide-scale AI adoption could lead to 10% to 18% GDP growth across Southeast Asia by 2030. This is equivalent to nearly US$1 trillion dollars, the firm said.

All this, however, entails having a robust system for training and developing homegrown talent in AI and related fields, while opening pathways for international talent to make the region their base of operations.

With a business-friendly climate and an already tech-savvy workforce, many variables are working to Southeast Asia's advantage. It’s now a matter of keeping the momentum in its bid for AI supremacy.

The article 'Tech superpower: Southeast Asia’s bid for AI supremacy' was first published in People Matters.com.

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