Educational Quality May Not Match Quantity
By An Sithav
Unskilled and semi-skilled workers are not the only victims of the recent wave of unemployment: this year’s university graduates also seem unlikely to land a job.
These potential skilled additions to the labor force could provide timely contributions to economic growth if they find appropriate employment, analysts said. But once strong demand from the private sector and NGOs has withered in the wake of the economic downturn, leading some to predict a contraction in the skilled labor market this year.
Chan Sophal, the president of the Cambodian Economic Association warned that recent graduates will likely find it harder to find decent employment this year because economic activities, especially new investment projects, are expected to be down on 2008. "For instance,a number of Korean investment projects and investors reportedly returned home after their government called them back in the face of the serious economic downturn at home," he said.
Foreign buyers of Cambodia’s garments and visitors to Siem Reap’s many hotels have tightened their belts amid the downturn’s uncertainty, with predictable results for beleaguered tourism and the already-decimated garment sector, until recently key employers of fresh graduates. “Hotels in Siem Reap receive fewer tourists in 2009 compared to 2008 and garment factories cut down sub-contracts to smaller firms,” said Chan Sophal. "All of these directly reduced the prospects of new decent employment for fresh graduates.”
Way Off Course
Other experts pointed finger at graduates themselves, saying youth are pursuing irrelevant courses of study at poorly accredited institutions, and failing to gain appropriate work experience.
Ban Thero, vice-chancellor at Cambodian Mekong University, said students must specialize in a particular field or skill, rather than attempt to study as many subjects as possible. "I personally believe that students who study at two universities at once are wasting their time since they do not have enough time to do enough research … They must change their attitude toward reading and research."
Cambodia’s growing number of higher education institutions (HEIs)—the Ministry of Education (MoEYS) officially recognizes 63, of which 18 are public and 45 private—have seen significant improvements in quality, said Im Sethy, minister of MoEYS. “Collectively these public and private HEIs provide higher education to about 140,000 students including doctoral, master, bachelor, and associate degrees,” he added.
But improvements in both quality and quantity do not necessarily translate into a good education. An additional proliferation of privately run colleges and universities can add to the problem by concentrating on the bottom line rather than educational value. Much of the staff at these institutions have dubious qualifications and offer classes of doubtful quality.
Sandra D’Amico, secretary-general of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Association (CAMFEBA), said the poorly informed younger generation is characterized by a “lack of knowledge on how to find a job, a lack of experiences, a lack of right skilled demands for potential employers and lack of support skills.”
“The challenge in education is not only the curriculum and types of courses that are provided, a large part of the challenge is how we teach,” D’Amico said at the March 12 Cambodia Outlook conference. “We need to build in the basics from the beginning: Education and development will not have an impact if those who are learning do not have access to the facilities and support they need to learn.”
David Williams, a technical consultant at the International Labor Organization (ILO), shared similar sentiments. “There is in Cambodia today a significant—and growing—mismatch between the needs of employers and the skills of new labor market entrants,” he told Economics Today. “Cambodia—at its current level of development—needs more vocational and technical skills that are carefully tailored towards the needs of the labor market if it is to address the current youth employment challenge and provide decent work opportunities for all new labor force entrants.”
Based on his experience as manager of a company in Cambodia, Laurent Notin, general manager of the research firm Indochina Research, said there are indeed startling discrepancies between courses offered in Cambodia and the needs of the market.
“For example, there is a lack of quality sales people, while all companies need qualified sales staff, whom not only sell products but also develop long-term relationships with clients based on mutual trust,” he said. “Young people are often not well prepared to the employment market: they have limited professional experience, have not … done internships. While the international companies are often more prestigious, they are also far more demanding in terms of skills, experience and attitude.
Certainly the around 23,000 graduates of the 2008-2009 academic year are likely to find their next few years testing. During the rigors of a recession, employers become far more demanding, sparing selecting only a select few the best candidates.
Notin remarked that finding the right job is never easy, but has certainly become more difficult as companies cut their budgets. “In addition, most graduates have not been correctly prepared to enter the market on essentials skills such as writing a CV, writing a cover letter or undertaking job interviews.”
Denis Gambade, director of the French- Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, said that there are “no more huge recruitment plans like last year.”
“This year, companies need staff, but they are looking for the skilled and experienced ones first. Companies cannot afford to have huge payrolls like before; they want efficient staff.”
Ban Thero, agreed that the demand for labor is currently unsteady. “However,” he said, “demand for skilled and talented potential employees is still increasing, while demand for unskilled workers is decreasing.”
The news might not all be bad: Chan Sophal said that demand is still high for the best graduates and could be increasing. “As competition gets tougher, companies need to recruit more competent Cambodians, some to replace more costly expatriates,” he told Economics Today, recommending students study hard.
Cambodian Mekong University’s Ban Thero suggested students take their studies more seriously. “To upgrade and equip themselves for the market’s demands, students have to work harder to be better prepared during their time in universities,” he said.