Barbara Adam investigates how the changing nature of work might affect Vietnam. Photo by Angeli Castillo.

Technology is changing the andscape of work all around the world, and university students are coached on how to “future-proof” their careers in a rapidly-changing landscape.

At present, no one is even sure what the future will look like, although all indications are that automation will continue apace, and artificial intelligence (AI) will be used for a lot of tasks that used to require humans.

Earlier this year, global consulting company EY released the results of a survey of middle-market executives from 21 countries. The EY Global Growth Barometer 2017 found that embracing cognitive technologies was one of the top priorities for middle market (that is, not multinational) companies.

Artificial Intelligence

“Attitudes toward new technology have evolved rapidly since last year,” the report said. “In 2017, 74% of global middle-market CEOs said they would never adopt robotic process automation, yet just 12 months later 73% of respondents say they are already adopting or planning to adopt artificial intelligence within two years.”

Experts around the world warn that routine jobs are most at risk of being replaced by automation and computerisation.

The most secure jobs in this current age are likely to be ones that can’t be replicated by technology or algorithms, jobs that fall into the category of “human work” or soft skills, tasks that require creativity, compassion and dexterity.

But what does that mean for the world’s expat workforce, including the expats now working in Vietnam?

Felicity Brown, career coach and founder of Maia Careers & Training, recommends expats (and locals) focus on expanding their soft skills that AI won’t be able to replicate.

Networking, online and in person, is important for your professional reputation, Felicity said, as is continually updating your skills, either through online courses, higher education or reading or contributing to industry journals.

Backup Plans

“Have not only a Career Plan A, but also a Plan B and a Plan C (and possibly D and E) in mind,” she said. “That way, should Plan A not work out, you have good alternatives.”

Felicity also suggests people consider a “portfolio” career. “That means a career that is a combination of different types of work,” she said. “For example, consulting, freelance, managing a holiday property or a share portfolio in addition to your day job to broaden your income generating base.”

The concept of a portfolio career, or a series of careers, is something Felicity urges current high school and university students to consider.

In her role as manager of career consulting and development at RMIT University Vietnam, she emphasises the importance of being flexible when it comes to career planning.

Entrepreneurial Mindset

“There will be fewer full-time positions and more portfolio careers with workers having a number of concurrent projects and diverse income sources,” she said. “This means that workers will need to have a flexible, entrepreneurial mindset to identify and capitalise on or make their own opportunities.”

Anne Greenfield spends a lot of time encouraging professional development and entrepreneurship through Co-Space co-working space in District 2’s Thao Dien.

Anne said just as landing an expat position in Vietnam could boost a person’s career, arriving here in a trailing spouse-type situation also presented enormous opportunities.

“It can be an opportunity to redefine yourself,” she said. “To discover what you want to do, what you’re passionate about. You can look at what’s missing in this country and maybe find a niche.”

Startup Scene

The low cost of living in Vietnam attracts many entrepreneurial-minded people, Anne pointed out. Some arrive to start or develop an idea, part of the new internationally mobile workforce who call themselves digital nomads. And Anne said these entrepreneurs are not all 25-year-old graduates, some are professionals in the process of reinventing themselves, career-wise or otherwise.

Simon Fraser, a partner in the Vietnam branch of global recruitment firm Horton International said Vietnam’s labour force was unlikely to follow the global trend of automation in the near future. One of the main attractions for foreign investment in Vietnam is the low labour costs, he said.

The executive-level job market is also unusual because of the large Vietnamese diaspora.

The Great Homecoming

“In 2006-07, during the global financial crisis, many young Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) started pouring out of the US,” he said. “They came here banking on the fact that they can speak Vietnamese, have overseas qualifications and the global economic crash hadn’t affected Vietnam just yet.”

Simon said these young professionals and graduates were usually snapped up by Vietnamese employers, who believed they would integrate well into the local culture and introduce world’s best practices to their new employers. Because they were desperate to find a job, the Viet Kieu often agreed to work for lower-than-market rates.

At the time, the Vietnamese government was also keen for Vietnamese companies to be led by Vietnamese people, not imported foreign talent, and Viet Kieu were seen as not 100% foreign, so authorities were reasonably happy with the trend.

But in most cases, things didn’t work out so well. Many of the newly-arrived Viet Kieu treated their time in Vietnam like a summer holiday. “Their local colleagues thought they were disrespectful, brash and culturally insensitive,” Simon said.

A Rebalancing

When the global economy started picking up again, most of the Viet Kieu left Vietnam, and local talent took over their jobs.

“However, promoting people to do jobs where they don’t have the skills and experience … a lot of them failed,” Simon said.

Things have stabilised now, he added. Executive salaries have recovered from the dip caused by the influx of Viet Kieu, and Vietnamese managers have developed the skills needed for success.

The government is still encouraging local firms to hire local managers, and that means Simon’s team in the Vietnam office of Horton International spends more time recruiting locals than expats for executive positions.

Career coach Felicity said “localising” jobs, including those at senior levels, was increasingly the trend around the world. And that means expats should be prepared to move.

“Be open to opportunities and be flexible about location,” she said.