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Is acquiring vocational skills the best option for poor people?

PHNOM Penh resident Kim Sophea runs her own hair salon in a small storefront she rents on a busy street near the Olympic Market.  What makes this amazing is that Kim Sophea is only 19.  And what makes it downright incredible is that she never went past  grade eight at school.

“I’m not interested in studying,” Kim Sophea told LIFT.  “When I was a student, I was always skipp-ing school with my friends to go and sing karaoke or ride around on our motorbikes.”

She added that she’d done  even worse things in those days, but refused to elaborate.  

Aware of her situation, and wanting to prevent her getting in more serious trouble, Kim Sophea’s parents decided she should learn a trade.

She’d always loved primping and wearing make-up, so she became an apprentice at a hair salon near her home.  After a year, and about $300,    she is now a skilled hair stylist, make-up artist and all-round beauty queen.

“I can earn quite a lot with my new skills,” Kim Sophea says with a smile.

Learning technical skills can be a worthwhile alternative to traditional formal education – and not just for making money.  Learning a skill can get you back on the right track in life, as in Sophea’s case.

There are many places where young people can learn new trades without paying a cent.

Vuthy, 23, who asked that we withhold his full name, was once a drug addict with serious family problems.  Now he’s learning hair styling with the NGO Mith Samlanh, which works with street children to give them a new lease on life.

“When I was in secondary school, my parents got divorced,” Vuthy, an only child, says.  He’s been learning his favourite skill for more than three years  and hopes to soon open his own hairdressing shop.

Despite these success stories, turning a wayward youth into a productive citizen is no simple task.  Although technical and vocational training are provided free of charge by the government as well as a number of local and international organisations, some teenagers and children are unwilling to participate for a number of reasons.

Kuch Phearun, the communications manager at Friends International, explains that it’s difficult to attract poor children to technical training courses because most of them have to work to support their family.

“Some street children hesitate to learn technical skills because of their family situation.  They need to earn money for their families by hawking goods on the street or simply by begging,” says Kuch Phearun, who adds that most of the parents of these children think only of the short-term benefits of petty entrepren-eurship, not the substantial, long-term benefits of learning a skill.

Mith Samlanh provides free educat-ion and vocational training to about 1600 children below the age of 24.

“Our outreach groups are continually trying to attract more children to come and learn here,” Kuch Phearun says.

The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training has also inaugurated a project to strengthen technical and vocational training in order to make more skills available to children and teens, as well as to impoverished, disabled or otherwise vulnerable adults.  The training aims to continually improve national productivity, create jobs in the formal and non-formal job sectors, and increase the number of jobs in rural areas.

The aim of the project is simple: to reduce poverty and provide skilled labour to meet market demand.

By 2015, it aims to enrol more stud-ents in three key sectors: mechanics, construction services, and information and communications technology.

It also aims to graduate more women from provincial training centres and provide more opportunities for people to be self-employed.

Srey Pov, 19, is an orphan who is learning hairdressing and nail polishing.  She says she will work for others and develop her skills until the day when she is able to open her own business.

“I hope my skills will provide me with a better living,” she says optimistically.

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