Data is changing the world and we cannot afford to leave future generations behind

Prior to the pandemic, there were concerns about the gaps in education and training for children and young people. But in the words of UNICEF, COVID-19 has “exacerbated the learning crisis”. In fact, a recent study by Asian Development Bank estimates that the learning losses from school closures across Asia Pacific (APAC) will result in a 2.4% annual decrease in each student’s future earnings, placing the entire region’s economic recovery and development potential at risk.  

The ramifications are significant – for young people’s personal development, their ability to acquire skills, the impact this will have on the global workforce and, by extension, the economy. So, it is little wonder that many warn of a generation lost to the pandemic and how this disruption might impact their ability to support the economic recovery. 

As we approach International Literacy Day on September 8, there is no better time than now to reflect and examine how we can ensure our future generations have the right resources and skills to succeed in today’s increasingly digital and data-driven workplace. 

The call for data skills 

For everyone else, the events of the last year have been a steep learning curve. Whether to take advantage of the unique opportunities of the time or to ensure their survival, businesses have needed to make faster decisions to adapt to the rapidly evolving situation. From CEO down to entry-level graduate, a crucial facet of this has been the ability to read and understand data. This trend is here to stay as organisations respond to longer-term changes in working practices and consumer behavior. As the next generation of talent enters the workplace, they will be expected to respond to these changes by quickly interpreting information and making decisions.

Businesses are therefore heavily increasing their reliance on their capacity to realise the value of the data they hold. To do that, they need workforces equipped to read, understand, question and work with data – to be data literate. Yet, our recent Human Impact of Data Literacy report revealed that businesses in APAC are losing billions in lost productivity due to employee stress around information, data, and technology issues. These include businesses in India ($4.6bn), Japan ($15.16bn), Australia ($9.4bn) and Singapore ($3.7bn). 

So, if people are entering the workforce ill-equipped, does this limit the ability of the business world to recover and build the resilience to adapt to future disruptions? And to fix this, do we need to look back in their development pathway to empower them with the necessary data skills? 

Everyone has a part to play 

Naturally, those considering answers to these questions will look to the education system. However, upskilling the workers of tomorrow is a joint responsibility taken on by educational institutions, businesses, and governments:

  1. Focusing on vocational training: For most educational institutions, providing students with transferable skills is at best an afterthought of academic education. However, more universities, colleges and schools are recognising their role in preparing students for the workforce. Part of this means formalising their approaches to remote or hybrid models of studying, which will be directly applicable to the professional environment, given the increasing trend of such models. Amid the pandemic, countries like Indonesia are enabling students to learn remotely through e-learning platforms that provide access to over 80,000 learning videos and digital materials on topics in line with the demands of today’s workforce. Such an example is beneficial to the future workforce in preparing students to work effectively in remote and hybrid work arrangements. 
  1. Building digital and data skills into the curriculum: Digital skills need to be gradually integrated into existing courses. Even embedding data skills into the existing core curriculum will ready graduates for when they enter the workplace. In Singapore, for example, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College West set up a social media and data analytics lab to accelerate staff and student capabilities in emerging technologies like data analytics while offering joint project opportunities. 
  1. Continuous education for graduates: The education system alone should not bear the brunt of responsibility. Businesses in APAC must also look at how they upskill young workers in data and other digital skills. In addition to in-house programmes, businesses can also recommend workers to utilise free resources online, such as the Data Literacy Project, which brings together educational and professional training resources, tools, and community access to experts. This combination of theoretical understanding and practical applications can ensure that young people become accustomed to the types of information they will encounter in the professional environment. 

Enabling future-readiness 

Data literacy skills are vital for youths to open  a new door towards a satisfying and enriching career. Every young person should have the right to a rewarding career. In an increasingly data-centric world, they need to be taught the relevant skills to enjoy that right. This means ensuring that the education they receive, whether from formal institutions or on the job, evolves alongside technological advances and the speed of business decision-making.

To fuel recovery, the world needs people who can quickly understand information, adapt to changing situations and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Although the path back from the pandemic will require many things, I am confident that countries in APAC that can equip young people with relevant skills for the modern enterprise will set a platform for productivity and economic growth.