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Businesses, including those in the supply chain sector, will have a real edge if they have staff who are knowledgeable about the cultures, languages and values of the peoples and countries of Asia

Do you have a future-proof, Asia-ready workforce? –
By Simon Draper

Many Kiwi students are leaving school without the skills they will need to do business in what is increasingly becoming a sector focused on Asia, so what can we do as an industry to change this?

It was Charles Darwin who said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.”

Business leaders, including those in the freight sector, have heard and perhaps even used this quote many times. In recent years, however, nowhere has that need to ‘manage change’ been more pronounced for Kiwi businesses than in the context of Asia’s growing relevance to New Zealand.

The reality that New Zealand’s present and future – economically, culturally and socially – is tied to Asia has presented game-changing opportunities for businesses. As an export-driven economy, Kiwi businesses – in fact society – must continue to follow Darwin’s advice, and that means waking up to the importance of having an Asia-capable workforce.

Take Southeast Asia as an example. The pace of growth happening there is phenomenal. New Zealand’s trade with Vietnam is the fastest-growing in Southeast Asia. It grew by 120% between 2010 and 2015. Two-way trade is now over $1 billion. 

Vietnam exported a total of US$45 billion worth of smartphones in 2017. To put that into context, New Zealand’s largest export last year was US$10 billion worth of dairy. And talking of scale, India needs to create a million new jobs a month.

With compelling data like that, it’s essential our perceptions of countries in this region keep pace with reality. They are now bustling centres for innovation, technology and trade, rather than fishing villages and rice paddies.

Challenges to overcome

There are, however, potential headwinds which pose challenges to our major trading partners in the wider Asia region. And businesses in the freight sector have a role to play in overcoming these challenges.

According to an Asia New Zealand Foundation research ‘Losing Momentum: school leavers’ Asia engagement’ published last year, only 8% of senior secondary school students are ‘Asia ready’ or have the Asia-related skills and knowledge to confidently engage in Asia. Fewer than four in 10 (37%) think Asia-related skills and knowledge will be important for New Zealand’s future workforce. The research also found the proportion of students learning Asian languages is decreasing. These are the next generation of Kiwi employees – the future workforce.

This seems counterintuitive to me, because all the data indicates we will need a workforce that is more Asia-savvy than ever before. It’s as if young Kiwis are not aware that six of our top ten trading partners are now in Asia. 

Perhaps we also need to continually remind them that New Zealand is an exporting country, and that we have moved from the UK being our most significant partner for exports to China being our top export market. Almost a fifth of our total exports go to China. We now send more goods to China in a week than we did in an entire year back in 1990.

Increasing interaction

Statistics New Zealand projects that one in three New Zealanders in Auckland will be of Asian ethnicity by 2038, so we have the talent locally. Other research ‘Beyond the Metropoles: the Asian presence in small-city New Zealand’ by the Asia New Zealand Foundation found that Asian populations are increasingly becoming part of the demographic landscape in regional New Zealand. 

Given that successful businesses will have increasing interaction with Asia and Asian peoples, there is little question businesses will need staff who have the confidence and competence to engage with Asia and Asian peoples. Businesses, including those in the supply chain sector, will have a real edge if they have staff who are knowledgeable about the cultures, languages and values of the peoples and countries of Asia. But we haven’t got these future staff at the moment. 

What can businesses do? One simple way is to let your voices be heard on this need for an Asia-competent workforce. Businesses will need to work with other stakeholders to come up with a deliberate and considered approach to ensure we have a future-proof, Asia-ready workforce. This will require collaboration across sectors – including educators, businesses, government, policymakers, and the community.

Huge impact

You often hear that New Zealand is a ‘lucky’ country. I don’t believe that. What ‘luck’ New Zealand may have was hard won, thanks to earlier generations of New Zealanders who made tough decisions and exerted effort that contributed to make New Zealand what it is today.

The prosperity of Asia presents New Zealand with an opportunity that will have a huge impact on our present and future. But we will need to get our act together, and soon. It’s time to make our own luck again.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to build New Zealanders’ knowledge and understanding of Asia; for further information, visit www.asianz.org.nz

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