APAC is struggling to upskill its workforce. Can online platforms like Coursera plug that gap?

  • 86 million workers in the region need upskilling
  • Malaysians are motivated by government subsidies for green skilling 

75% of APAC employers, government officials and academics believe their country has a significant digital skill gap, this is according to a report by Economist Impact titled Bridging the skills gap: fuelling careers and the economy in Asia-Pacific. Employers in the region are increasingly finding it a challenge to fill roles that require advanced digital skills. A separate report by AWS found the existing gaps so large that an estimated 86 million workers would need to be upskilled or reskilled to keep up with the pace of technological change. 

In parallel to this, a majority of the APACs young workforce are hoping to work in the green economy within the next ten years, per the Economist Impact report. This looks to be a peculiar situation – on the one hand, there is a huge gap in upskilling digital skills for jobs that need to be filled now, but at the same time neither is there enough talent pool, or demand, for jobs in the green economy. The growth rate for hiring green talent in APAC between 2016 and 2021 was 30%, compared to 41% in the EU and 70% in the US. 

APAC is struggling to upskill its workforce. Can online platforms like Coursera plug that gap?For people already in the workforce, time remains at a premium when considering options for upskilling, with many opting for micro-credentials delivered through online course providers. Sustainability Matters spoke with Raghav Gupta (pic), Managing Director of Asia Pacific and India at Coursera to discuss the state of online learning and what employers are looking for in skill development. 

SM: Firstly, give a sense of how much learning takes place on Coursera.

RG: There are about 124 million registered learners on our platform, which is a 21% growth year-on-year. We added 22 million new learners globally in 2022 and about 640,000 learners are in Malaysia, where we are seeing growth of about 28% year-on-year. We added I think about 6,770 learners in Malaysia in the second half of last year. 

SM: What exactly are Malaysians learning?

RG: Some of the top courses that learners in Malaysia have been taking are around data and machine learning. Google’s Foundations: Data, Data, Everywhere was the top course in Malaysia for 2022, followed by one on machine learning from Stanford University. Interestingly Yale’s offering on the science of well-being came in third, while an elementary-level Korean language course from Yonsei University came in fourth. 

SM: So desu ne! What about professional certification courses? What skills are increasingly being sought by learners?

RG: So, you know, I would broadly say we are seeing ESG-related skills becoming important, but I would still say that the biggest priority that we see in terms of the skills that working professionals are looking to build are largely digital. A combination of tech and data, and to an extent leadership skills in a post-covid world or leading in a hybrid world. Green skilling is happening, but in terms of relative urgency and prioritisation, it's behind digital tech, data and leadership skills. You know, when I travel through the region, I probably meet a lot more Chief Digital Officers, but I’ve only met two Chief Sustainability Officers and it's a representation of the roles that are getting created in companies as well, right? And both of the Chief Sustainability Officers were Europeans by the way. 

SM: What about green skills? There’s an increasing regulatory requirement, which I assume means that there will be an impetus to understand ESG reporting skills at the very least. 

What we find interesting is that companies and individuals are wanting governments to fund building up green- and ESG-related skills. Companies are not investing their own money as much yet. Individuals are not investing their own money in such skills as much. The Economist Impact report found that by far employees were more motivated to learn green skills when it was subsidised by the government. Partly this may be because they aren’t sure yet what the prospects are. So, in this regard, Malaysia does a good job through the Human Resources Development Corporation (HRD Corp) programs. We have close to 200 ESG-related courses on Coursera. Some of the biggest industries where we see this learning happening are healthcare, pharmaceuticals, banking and financial services, technology, energy, consumer goods, real estate and even management consulting as well. And as one would imagine, these are the right sectors, right? You would want the energy sector to be building green skills, you would want the real estate sector to be building green skills and so on. We are seeing a lot of IT services companies, technology services companies saying, look, how do we get our engineers, data analysts, and data scientists to also have green skills so that they can start applying these in the projects that they're doing for clients. And there's one course where we have seen a 900% increase in enrolments in Malaysia and that course is called ‘ESG Data and Accountability’. University of London’s Business Sustainability in the Circular Economy has seen an increase of 235% in enrolments in Malaysia. 

SM: OK, so that’s 200 plus ESG-related courses, but you have hundreds more across probably onehundred other topics. From the learner's perspective, how do they know that they are enrolling for a course that is specific to what they are looking to learn, and to sieve through all the information within a course?

When you're taking Coursera courses now there will be a personalised coach powered by Chat GPT. As you're inside the course if you have questions and clarifications about the course and the concepts that you're learning, you can ask Coursera Coach and it'' provide you with an answer. You can also say 'Look, I'm finding this material to be a little bit more advanced for my current level of proficiency, can you recommend simpler material?’ and it will give you that level of augmentation as well. You can say. It can also provide lecture video summaries. We are working towards Coursera Builder which will auto-generate course content based on input from learners. 

SM: Many of these courses, whether on Coursera or other platforms, are accessible for free, but online learning can also be a lonely experience. What is the typical commitment required to complete courses based on what you’ve seen across your platform?

In terms of time, I think when it comes to individuals working in companies and learning on Coursera, we see people spending somewhere between 20 to 40 hours per year on Coursera to learn some of these skills. If you're an individual learner and you take one course, it's a 10-to-15-hourcourse. If you're taking a series of courses, then you know you're somewhere in the 30-to-50-hourrange. We've also seen massive growth in industry-authored professional certificates. You know, if you're wanting to start a career in data analysis then you can become a Google-certified data analyst. If you want to start a career in digital marketing then you can take a certificate with Meta and so on, and some of these industry micro-credentials tend to be across 6 to 10 courses. Each course is about 10 hours, so these tend to be 60-to-100-hour courses. 

SM: What else can we expect in the future? Online learning still feels very one-dimensional.

RG: Our upcoming VR Course Experiences will enable educators to incorporate virtual reality (VR) components into their courses to help learners engage with content more deeply via desktop or most VR headsets.


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