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By Lien Hoang
Asia has more people logging onto the internet than anywhere else in the world, but not enough of them seem to be learning about the computers that make all this possible. Both employers and network engineers are worrying that the region faces a shortage of tech talent. Observers pin the blame on cultural attitudes, programming fatigue and more stimulating alternatives, all of which exacerbate the Asian brain drain. The answer is more training, local language content and a continuing free internet, experts say.
In 2016, employers in Asia-Pacific ranked “IT personnel” as the No. 1 job they struggled to fill, according to ManpowerGroup, which said that's the first time IT has topped the Asia list in its survey's 11-year history. Information technology didn't crack the Top 5 for other world regions, which instead had trouble finding electricians, salespeople and machinists.
Steven Huter, director of the Network Startup Resource Center, was in Ho Chi Minh City this month to train people working on internet infrastructure, his nonprofit group's specialty. In solving the workforce shortage, he said, it's time to stop thinking of the internet as just an impersonal series of wires and bits.
When the web emerged for mass consumption in the 1990s, it was viewed as more of a technical resource than a human resource. Now, Huter said, the world is entering a new phase that recognizes the internet is ultimately composed of people.
“While we need undersea cables and routers and such, at the end of the day, it's really about the people,” Huter told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “I really believe it's the network of people who built the internet that's the richest part of the ecosystem.”
Asia's 15 percent uptick in online users tied the Middle East for the fastest annual growth rate as of January, according to We Are Social, a media and branding firm. But talent isn't keeping pace. Market researcher IDC estimated Asia-Pacific had 482,671 jobs in IT go unfilled last year, a supply-demand gap of 31 percent, versus 28 percent in 2012 (though that doesn't include China and Japan).
Some of that shortfall may have cultural causes. In Asian societies, “network engineer” does not seem to evoke quite the same cachet as, say, “doctor,” said Philip Smith, who conducts network training through the Asia and Pacific Internet Association and other groups.
Similarly, the rapid riches of a finance career or glamor of a startup entrepreneur can make programming jobs a tougher sell by comparison, said Tan Hai Siang, a sales engineer at cybersecurity firm NSFOCUS. Siang told Bloomberg BNA that the tedium of computer code leaves some employees feeling burned out.
“A lot of them, after a few years, want to move on to other sectors,” said Siang, who is based in Malaysia.
And then there are those who move not to other sectors, but to other countries. Network professionals are a very “itinerant community,” Smith said, and can work anywhere. This flexibility to relocate for the best job prospects worsens the brain drain, a problem felt most severely in developing nations, according to the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center, the regional domain name registry.
Smith was visibly conflicted about the brain drain. On the one hand, he hopes skilled technologists from Vientiane to Vanuatu will stay put and contribute to their own countries. On the other hand, he empathizes with engineers chasing opportunity abroad, as he did after leaving Scotland.
“They know that they're very hirable,” Smith told Bloomberg BNA. “Everybody wants to improve their own lives and their families' lives.”
Smith believes more companies have to recognize the importance of their IT divisions, saying the region's hierarchical focus can put managers first, even in cases when a technician should make the call.
Besides the need for greater digital infrastructure training in Asia, Huter thinks local talent would be likelier to stick around if the internet were more developed. That means governments must let the web flourish rather than censor it, and people must produce more online content in Asian languages. This, Huter said, would create a more interesting virtual playground that retains computer coders and engineers.
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