COUNTRIES in Southeast Asia including the Philippines should harness labor mobility to ease skill shortages caused by urbanization, technological advances and other disruptions, according to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report released on Wednesday.

“When employers can choose from a broader talent pool, they can make better matches and make the best possible use of a scarce resource,” ADB chief economist Yasuyuki Sawada said in the preface of the book titled Skilled Labor Mobility and Migration.

Structural transformation, urbanization, demographic change and rapid technological advances under the Fourth Industrial Revolution could disrupt labor markets and displace workers, simultaneously spurring demand for new, more highly specialized skills that are in short supply, ADB said in the book edited by Elisabetta Gentile.

“Skilled worker mobility across ASEAN is a powerful way of alleviating skill shortages and transferring knowledge across borders,” it said. “It is also crucial to boost productivity.”

In the past 20 years, migrants within the region have more than quadrupled to 9.9 million in 2016 from 2.1 million in 1995, according to ADB. While the total volume of intra-regional migration has grown substantially over the years, the major patterns of labor mobility have not changed dramatically, it said.

The report noted that rapid economic growth of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members has led to a wealthier middle class that is willing to pay for better, higher-quality goods and services.

It has also fueled mass urbanization through both intra- and cross-country migration, as rural workers move to cities and workers from less-developed areas and countries look for better opportunities in more advanced ones.

Southeast Asia’s urban population is expected to grow by almost 100 million people to about 373 million by 2030.

Aside from demographic change due to improved living standards, rapid technological advances may disrupt labor markets, according to the ADB report.

“While industrial robots have been confined to routine and manual tasks for a long time, they are increasingly capable of undertaking non-routine and cognitive tasks,” it said.

As much as 56% of employment in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia is at risk of being displaced due to technology in the next decade or two. Occupations at high risk are largely routine tasks that can increasingly be automated — for example, as carried out by sewing machine operators, shops and salespersons, food service personnel and office clerks.

Industry experts also estimated that 47% of business process outsourcing (BPO) workers in the Philippines are focused on process-driven tasks that will be challenged by increasingly sophisticated voice, text and image recognition.

ASEAN members should introduce policies that encourage movement across a wide array of skills, the ADB report said.

Workers with regional qualifications can be prioritized in job applications in an industry that mutually benefits source and destination economies, it said. “These schemes can be devised to maximize efficiency in sharing talent.”

And since workers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are more likely to be self-employed and hold a portfolio of jobs, work visa policies and procedures in the region must be reformed, ADB said. The process of obtaining a visa cannot take longer than the stay itself and workers’ visas cannot be tied to a single employer or make it difficult to transfer to a different one.

The need to promote cross-border labor mobility goes beyond the realm of just the highly skilled, according to the report.

The demand for semi- to lower-skilled workers is already high and may increase to meet the growing need in services, healthcare and household services.

“ASEAN countries should encourage one another to work together to develop a regional human resource development plan and strategy,” the report said.

The plan can assess the adequacy of labor supply and come up with measures to fill possible gaps, it added. — Norman P. Aquino