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US-Mekong Dialogue Explores Future of Region’s Workforce

FILE: A view of the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos is seen from the Thai side in Nong Khai. (Reuters)
FILE: A view of the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos is seen from the Thai side in Nong Khai. (Reuters)

How can the United States help equip the Mekong region’s workforce for the future?

That was the question at the center of an ambitious agenda at the Mekong-US Partnership’s meeting over the summer in Phnom Penh, which was synthesized in a report recently released by the Stimson Center.

The report — and a virtual panel discussion on Oct. 27 — covered three thematic areas of the region’s workforce: education, underrepresented groups and health care.

“Today more than ever it's essential that we continue working across boundaries to institute policies and processes that enable workers to adapt to and embrace new technologies,” Daniel J. Kritenbrink, assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at the start of the discussion.

Kritenbrink said the ideas and recommendations coming out of the Mekong-U.S. Partnership Track 1.5 Policy Dialogue series would help guide U.S. policy in the region, and identify emerging solutions to problems.

Brian Eyler, who directs the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center, hosted the virtual discussion along with experts in each of the three areas.


The report that came out of July’s in-person discussions in Phnom Penh highlighted the mismatch of soft skills and hard skills among regional workers.

“Soft skills are often overshadowed by hard skill training programs, leading to a mismatch between job market needs and student skill sets,” said a summary of the report. “Soft skills like communication, persistence, flexible problem-solving, listening, and stress management are underemphasized but are a vital complement to technical skills and expertise.”

To address these issues, participants recommended that ministries of education include soft skills testing in their internal assessments of success, teachers include soft skills in their training and curriculum, and the U.S. emphasized soft skills in its programming.

Porntip Kanjananiyot, a special advisor on higher education to the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, said teachers and administrators must be a focus of this soft skills training as well.

“We tend to overlook the importance of the quality of faculty and senior leaders in supporting and becoming the role model for soft skills,” she said in last week’s virtual discussion.

And she said that efforts should focus on platforms and resources that bring best practices and key lessons together in one place, for educators in all of the Mekong region countries to deploy in their schools and classrooms.

“One of the things that we don't really see is…a synthesis of all the common areas that we touch on. That will be very useful,” Porntip Kanjananiyot said.

Underrepresented groups

Participants in the human resource policy dialogue — one of seven such events in the Mekong-US Partnership series — focused mostly on women and migrant workers in their discussion of underrepresented groups.

The resulting report recommended that public and private actors focus their digital training and “upskilled” efforts on these groups as a way to level the playing field.

Porhour Ly, a senior product manager at Cambodian fintech startup Boost Capital, said there were no blanket solutions to these challenges.

“It's very tempting for us to say upskilling, right; providing digital training to our labor,’’ Porhour Ly said in the virtual discussion. ‘’But actually, first we should look at what digitalization means for each of the different sectors because it could look very differently.”

“So then upskilling means looking at the right type of training based on the existing skill set that the labor has and also, how can we leverage their existing skill set so then they could, you know, be prepared for this digital transformation.”

Porhour Ly noted three main recommendations for putting this into practice.

  • Private sector companies and government agencies should look to subsidize access to technology and digital devices — as well as electricity and internet — for underrepresented groups so they can become familiar with the tools from a young age.
  • Donors and governments should require entities they work with to collect data through a gender lens, and enforce standard methods of data collection so it can be shared between entities and used to improve outcomes.
  • Public and private sector actors should also work together to raise awareness and educate workers at the village and commune level, so they understand the risks of migrating to other countries and have passports and other necessities to migrate safely.

Health care

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on areas that need improvement in the health systems of Mekong region countries — especially around access to vaccines and a lack of equity.

Those were the main upshots shared by Bradley J. Murg, a senior research fellow and senior advisor at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“And this question of inequitable access really also comes out of the gap that we continue to see in the development of healthcare systems as well as fiscal systems in the Greater Mekong sub region compared to many of our other ASEAN partners,” he said in the virtual conversion.

“And that development gap, unfortunately, does continue to widen at the same time as we look forward to next steps in vaccination.”

Among the recommendations highlighted by Murg were looking at how countries with stronger healthcare systems have cooperated with poorer countries on COVID vaccines, and finding ways to continue those relationships on an ongoing basis.

Participants also saw an important role for the private sector, and how pharmaceutical and logistics companies can form public-private partnerships to improve vaccine access.

Another key theme in health care was making sure that health care workers can keep up with changes in technology. The report noted that this is a hurdle to lifting up healthcare sectors in the region.

“Data sharing processes and data protection policies can be improved through the use of modern software, but the software is often difficult to use,” it said.

It recommended that international donors provide technical assistance and training for new electronic health systems, and that government agencies develop technical requirements and shared standards to ensure interoperability of the systems.