John Menadue. The smoko continues.

I have posted many blogs on this subject – how we have failed to equip Australia for our future in Asia. We just do not have the Asian literacy and skills we need for our future in the region.

See blogs. The smoko continues (3 December 2014) and Will the new Colombo Plan work? (12 August 2014).

Our business sector talks endlessly about the need to improve productivity in Australia particularly through labour market reform. At the moment the business campaign is to reduce penalty rates. Yet the business sector has failed comprehensively to equip itself with the skills needed for the Asian Century.

Over forty years ago there was a surge in language learning in Australia. Ross Garnaut reported in 1989 in his report Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendancy about the need for Asian literacy and skills in business and in the wider community. But it petered out because there were so few businesses employing the new Asia-literate graduates.

In 2012 the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century commented:

“The share of Australian students studying languages, including many Asian languages, is small and has fallen in recent times. Between 2000 and 2008 the share of Australian students learning a tertiary accredited language other than English in year 12 dropped in a time where overall student numbers increased by almost 9%. In 2008, less than 6% of Australian school students studied Indonesian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese (Mandarin) in Year 12.”

The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has now a new Colombo Plan in reverse to fund internships for young Australians to work and study in Asia. But its value will be limited unless Australian employers lift their game and employ qualified Asia-literate people.

With others, I campaigned in the 1970s and 1980s for Asian language education. There was a lift in Asian language leaning in schools and universities. But unfortunately those with Asian skills were in general not able to obtain work in Australia and drifted off to work in places like Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Diversity Council Australia has just released a report ‘Leading in the Asian Century – a national scorecard of Australia’s Asian capability’. In the launch of this report this month, DCA said :

DCA’s first ever research on workforce AQ in Australia has revealed that for Australian businesses, one of the biggest impediments to realising business and investment opportunities in the Asian region is a lack of understanding about Asia capabilities. In particular, Australian businesses are not identifying and cultivating the Asia capabilities that are critical to business success. Key findings include:

There is a strong business case for fostering workforce AQ. Seven out of Australia’s top ten export markets are in Asia, and constitute 66% of our total export market. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in Asia and its consumer demand is worth US$10 trillion annually, similar to the U.S.

Asia capable talent is available. AQ is considerably higher in some groups – in particular the 16.7% of Australian workers who have an Asian cultural identity, the 15.9% who have lived and worked in Asia and the 20.9% who can read, write and/or speak an Asian language (at least basic proficiency level).

But a third of workers have low AQ. While one in ten (10.8%) of all Australian workers have excellent Asia capability, one third (34.7%) have none or very little. Close to two-thirds of workers have no or very little working knowledge of how to effectively manage in Asian business contexts. Overall, our workforce scores three out of five for Asia capability.

Senior executives & managers are more likely to have higher AQ. Australian senior executives and managers are more likely to have excellent Asia capability than non-managers (13.9% of managerial workers versus 10.3% of non-managerial workers).

Fluency in Asian languages is low. Only 5.1% of workers are fluent in one or more Asian languages (i.e. can comfortably discuss and write about highly complex issues with colleagues/clients in an Asian language).

Having business interests in Asia doesn’t guarantee AQ. Workers in organisations with Asian business interests are less likely to have excellent Asia capability (16.4%) compared with workers in an organisation with an Asian head office (29.8%).

There is too much talk and not enough action. While a fifth of workers said their organisations valued the AQ of their workforce (19.1% strongly agreed), fewer said their organisation was likely to effectively use these capabilities (12.6%).

(AQ is defined as an “individual’s ability to interact effectively in Asian countries and cultures, and with people from Asian cultural backgrounds to achieve goals.” In this research initiative DCA was partnered by Norton Rose Fulbright, Telstra, the CMIC Group and Asialink Business.)

Indeed as the report says ‘There is too much talk and not enough action’ The smoko continues. Even the White Paper on Australia and the Asian Century has been taken down from the government’s website.

I have yet to meet or hear of a Board member or senior executive of any of our top 100 companies who can fluently speak any of the major languages of our region.

Parochialism reigns supreme.

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