A year from now, 23-year-old Sum Tiara will graduate from the Royal University of Law and Economics with a degree in law.
At the moment, however, she needs to earn a living and pay for her studies by working in bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh. Not much time is left for homework and studying for exams, and even less for internships.
Tiara is one of the few students on her course who needs to earn a living without family support. “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer,” she said.
“I want to be a good lawyer and help people to find their rights. I also want to encourage women to work in this field, because Cambodia doesn’t have many female lawyers.”
Tiara is an exception. Many Cambodians choose an arbitrary degree program, hoping for nothing more than a well-paid job.
In the end, many of them remain unemployed, join a family business or start out independently.
Meanwhile, employers in several industries claim graduates often have weak practical qualifications.
Chap Chamroeunkunkoet, founder and managing director of recruitment agency Human to Human, knows about those challenges.
A lack of English or Chinese and office skills would disqualify many fresh graduates, she says.
“White-collar workers, however, complain that working in a factory would be too much pressure, and having worked in a factory would look bad on their CV. “
“They also say the salary would be too low and career opportunities limited.”
Human to Human tries to respond to those concerns by offering training and knowledge, but many candidates leave to join another company or go abroad after the training.
Nhim Bunarith, general manager of the Apsara Garment Company, says his company has difficulty recruiting staff for mid-level management positions.
He says his business has a pressing need for human-resources managers, technical managers and production-line managers, but few Cambodians are qualified for such jobs.
Many Cambodians have the mistaken idea they will land a well-paying job only if they have a university degree, but that is not the case, he says.
“I sometimes wonder how university graduates and their parents feel when they find out the real salary of workers in middle management.”
Although Cambodia has 20 public universities and nearly 30 private ones, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports told University World News last September that only about 150,000 students – 10 per cent of the age cohort – were enrolled in higher education.
International Labour Organisation (ILO) consultant Maeve Galvin says factories are having difficulty finding production workers because “the growth of the industry has been so rapid (35 per cent in 2011 and an additional 15 per cent in 2012.”
Technical vocational education and training networks, as well as career-guidance mechanisms, are needed, Galvin says.
“Companies should have a robust recruitment policy – one that provides opportunities for fresh graduates and incorporates upskilling, on-the-job training and opportunities for internal promotion.”
Another issue is the quality of education. “Even within study disciplines, graduating students do not have the right skills for the labour market. Course curriculums and teaching methodologies focus too much on theory and not enough on practical workplace skills (analysis, problem-solving, decision-making),” Sandra Damico, from the recruitment agency HRINC (Cambodia), wrote in a 2010 report.
Galvin adds: “Employers often say soft skills such as communication and interpersonal skills are lacking among graduates. Many of those joining the labour market after school are ill-equipped and lack basic numeracy, language and computer literacy, and the workplace skills private enterprises need their staff to have.”
“This can be resolved with a greater focus on education and skills development. Tools such as career-guidance mechanisms in education, the development of entrepreneurial skills and the provision of employment services and labour-market information would be paramount in this,” she says.
Dr Tapas R Dash, the vice-president of Build Bright University, says this would be the case for his students.
If his graduates change careers after study, it would be because of a lack of opportunities, Dash says. “We share our experiences with students. We invite people of diversified skills to talk to, and share their experiences with, students.
“We have a centre in which interested students have the opportunity to carry out research activities with seniors.”
“The university’s Centre for Foreign Languages helps students to build up their communication skills.”
Even so, only five per cent of potential students were enrolled in tertiary education in 2010 – low compared to the average for East Asia and the Pacific region, HRINC says.
This means some labour positions may be filled by the oversupply of business and foreign-language graduates.
“Students are enrolled in the wrong study disciplines – too many are enrolled in business-related courses and law, but too few are enrolled in engineering,” the report says.
Science, maths, agriculture and health are areas with national needs yet to be filled by skilled workers, it says.
Sum Tiara, who knew what she wanted, is afraid of graduate unemployment. What she paid for her university course would have been for nothing.
But demand for university courses is projected to increase by about 15 per cent a year, reaching more than 21,000 new positions in 2014, according to HRINC estimates.
Although the higher education system will have supplied about 220,000 bachelor degrees between 2009 and 2014, the labour market will absorb only about 86,000 graduates.
As a result, numerous fresh graduates take the first opportunity to leave the country.
“I think the cause of [migration] is an absence of labour-market information, but also an absence of opportunities in rural localities. The primary reason for this is the lure of higher pay abroad,” Galvin says. “Labour migration ought to be an option rather than a choice driven by poverty.”
Students like Tiara need to be flexible. In some sectors, suitable opportunities are lacking – and consequently migration is an opportunity to make a living.