Preparing for Thailand 4.0: Revamping vocational training for the future of work

person, holding, test tubes in a lab

As Thailand seeks to become a regional high-tech manufacturing and services hub by 2021, Technical and Vocation Educational Training (TVET) reforms are crucial.

By Dora Heng

Despite the rhetoric from the Thai government around Thailand 4.0—the national strategy focused on accelerating innovation and digital transformation—Thailand still faces constraints in realising her future-ready vision.

Thailand has dropped two spots from 38th to 40th in the World Economy Forum’s Global Competitive Index rankings for 2019. In particular, Thailand performed poorly in the digital skills dimension, ranking 73rd out of 140 countries.

To improve competitiveness, Thailand needs to strengthen the skill base of its workforce, especially around digital literacy and critical thinking.

Skilled workers are in high demand for Thailand 4.0

As part of Thailand 4.0, the government has committed to developing the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) to be a technology manufacturing and services hub by 2021. This economic zone spans more than 13,000 square kilometres across the eastern seaboard, encompassing the provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong.

The government seeks to facilitate investments within key technology-based industries, including intelligent electronics, advanced agriculture and biotechnology, food processing, medical tourism, digital technology and robotics.

However, there are concerns about the shortage of skilled labour available to meet the workforce demand. The labour demand within the EEC is estimated to exceed 475,000 people in the next five years. The current educational system within the three provinces at the centre of the EEC initiative can only supply 30% of the anticipated workforce.

Spools of silk being wound directly from cocoons. in a silk production factory in Thailand
Spools of silk being wound directly from cocoons in a silk production factory in Thailand.
Photo: Tom Thai

This shortage of skilled labour, most visible in industries such as automotive and electronics, may deter potential foreign investors.

Decreasing enrolment for Technical and Vocational Educational Training (TVET) is a cause for concern

One reason for the shortage of skilled labour is the decreasing enrolment rate in technical and vocation schools in Thailand. Given the importance of vocational training in preparing students for occupational roles within the industrial sector, this is a worrying trend.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the share of enrolments in the vocational track fell from 40% of total enrolment in secondary schools in 2008 to 20% in 2017.

There are also concerns about the quality of vocational training young Thai’s are receiving. A study carried out by the Singapore Management University (SMU) found that a large number of program graduates were still not equipped with the necessary skills to enter key industries.

Negative attitudes towards vocational education persist. Despite a commitment from the Office of the Vocational Education Commission (OVEC) to update the curriculum, many parents still view vocational education as a last resort option for their children. They perceive vocational training as academically inferior to other avenues of education. This is in part due to the low quality of many TVET teachers and trainers.

Improving vocational training requires private-public collaboration

The Thai government has recognised the urgency of the dearth of human capital and has undertaken various initiatives to address the skilled labour shortage and change public perception of vocational education.

At the “CP All Education 2020” forum in November, the Education Minister Mr Nataphol Teepsuwan announced that his ministry would increase the number and quality of vocational and technical students.

The government has approved a budget of THB 861 million (US$28 million) to develop human resources in the EEC. The Office of Vocational Education Commission (OVEC) will also offer a wider range of courses related to the S-curve innovation sectors and advanced technologies like automation and robotics.

Efforts have also been undertaken to strengthen students’ English proficiency and soft skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills. The government has signed an agreement with Pearson, the UK-based digital education company, aimed at providing career-oriented business and technology qualifications and strengthening collaboration between the UK and Thailand.

Outside of the government, the private sector has a role to play in closing the skill gaps between the skills demanded by employers and the skills that are taught in the education system. Business and industry can support the government by providing opportunities for job shadowing, apprenticeships programs, and provide input on designing a curriculum to cater to digital, machine-driven labour markets.

One of the key learning models being piloted at the Sattahip Vocational College in Chonburi, where students are connected with employers in real-world type conditions. In this new model, students spend at least 50% of the instruction time within a workplace situation and can receive direct feedback from either a teacher or an expert supervisor. This work-integrated learning is now being replicated across 40 vocational colleges in the region.

These collaborations across industries, educational institutions and the government are crucial for Thailand’s vocational training reforms. If Thailand wants to remain competitive and fulfil its Thailand 4.0 development goals, the government must continue to adapt and respond to the needs of the labour force to develop a skilled labour pool.