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University students attend a graduation ceremony at Koh Pich earlier this year in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Higher education fails to fill gaps

Cambodia’s higher education system counts around 105 universities and institutions, sending out an estimated 200,000 young graduated students into the job-market every year. According to the latest World Bank Report 2013, Cambodia’s unemployment rate is 0.3 per cent, one of the lowest in the world. It simply means the job market is big enough to absorb the job-seekers for years to come.

However, there is still room to diversify opportunities. The challenge is to ensure that graduated students are not entering the market in whichever position is available, but to ensure that they have the chance to enter the job market in a position that matches their skills, requirements and expectations.

I strongly believe that solving that problem will reduce the alarming employee turn-over rates and will boost productivity, promote development and increase returns. Hospitality, trade, import/export, banking and education are where most job vacancies are nowadays. Nevertheless, other sectors such as information technology, automotive and construction are climbing fast.

Freshly graduated students meeting the job-market demands still seems to be a challenge. Corporations appear to request aptitudes that are not aligned with university curriculum content. Soft skills like innovation, critical thinking and problem solving are the most commonly mentioned skill shortfalls.

On the other side, it is being observed that most Cambodian students are more attracted to general majors like business management or accounting as they are supposed to provide better opportunities for their professional career, leaving on the side other more technical degree such as science, technology and engineering.

In order to solve this impending issue, all the development partners in public and private sectors must work collaboratively towards new programs and initiatives aimed at reducing this gap and helping job-seekers increase their knowledge of job-market needs.

The economic impact of skill gaps is easy to decipher. It should push up the wages of the occupations or sectors that experience skill shortages and pull down the outputs of those sectors. Which of these effects will dominate depends on the wage inertia in those segments of the job market. From Cambodia’s perspective, labour markets are notorious for their stickiness in wage adjustment.

Hence, it is more likely that the negative effect on output will dominate the immediate effect of the skill gaps. In the medium to long term, however, wages for skill-starved occupations will go up. As wages rise, profits fall. That, in turn, will affect the competitiveness of these sectors and hence investment in them.

All these factors would ultimately lower the long-term growth of the country, which will also affect the government’s development vision for Cambodia to attain lower-middle income status by 2018 and upper-middle income status by 2030.

Cambodia’s rapidly growing and expanding economy is urgently asking for engineers, technicians, software developers and skilled workers that move other industries forward; thus new measures are needed to diversify and broaden the choice of majors as well as improve the curriculum content in order to reduce the gap between workforce skills and the job-market demand.

Promoting less popular and more technical degrees, such as engineering, medicine or science, can be beneficial for the development of Cambodia’s labour force.

Despite notable progress in the secondary education system this year, the quality of education in Cambodia still needs a push to catch up with its ASEAN neighbours.

Investing in infrastructure, lecturers, diversifying the specialisations being offered, updating curriculum to respond to market demands, promoting technical fields such as sciences, engineering and medicine and working on the Mutually Recognized Skills Framework together with the ASEAN community are some of the measures that could help Cambodia become a strong player in the region.

English language proficiency is another area that needs a lot of focus from both public and private educational institutions in the country.

I personally believe that local language is always a priority, but English language proficiency among the job-seekers is also indispensable for moving forward in their careers. English is the medium of communication in ASEAN and being empowered with this skill will open the doors of opportunities not only to the individuals but to the development of the economy.

With stable and continuous improvement of the quality and efficiency of the education system, ASEAN integration can be a golden opportunity for Cambodia’s economy to move forward and compete on a regional level.

Cambodia has been for years a liberalised regime in terms of employing foreigners within and outside the ASEAN region. Therefore, employees from the AEC should not represent a new hazard for local job-seekers, but a new opportunity for them to work out of Cambodia and bring back the knowledge learned abroad.

As matter of fact, that human capital is the engine of economic growth for any country and ASEAN can be the perfect opportunity for Cambodia to invest in it and strengthen it.

Joseph Matthews is the director of the department of International Cooperation at Asia Euro University.

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