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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Interview with David Van, rice expert

Interview with David Van, rice expert

Over half of the private sector firms felt that vocational education and training programs do not yet meet the needs of the business community as last month’s CAMFEBA report, “Pathways to Prosperity” states. Certainly TVET is the crucial area to improve because Cambodia needs badly more engineers, architects and so forth.

David Van, Deputy General Secretary of ARPEC (Alliance of Rice Producers & Exporters of Cambodia) and experienced rice traders knows the problem well himself. The problem is made worse by the bad image the rice industry has among students.

David Van, Deputy Secretary General of ARPEC
David Van, Deputy Secretary General of ARPEC. Photo Supplied

Why do many youth find the rice industry unattractive as employer?
When people hear the word garment sector they automatically identify this with garment workers. But of course you need people in the sector to do marketing, finance, design and so on. From the rice sector perspective this is the same syndrome. When people hear agriculture they think about farmers picking rice. But of course you need engineers who take care of the machinery in the rice mills for example. We also need accounting people, sales and marketing people, people who speak foreign languages like Chinese because China is a major market to tap into. It is a process of educating people and painting them the right picture of the rice industry because they have the tendency to have the wrong idea.

What are very industry specific careers in agriculture?
We need agronomists and engineers who specialize in agriculture, people who can maintain tractors for example.

What jobs are most sought after in your sector at the moment?
We definitely need agronomists who are able to do research and development on seeds that generate a higher yield and hence increase productivity. Because we try to mechanize harvesting we need a lot of technical equipment and hence mechanics and engineers who can maintain this machinery.

Are agronomists paid well?
If you work for the government you obviously don’t get paid very well but if you are a very specialized agronomist with good skills the private sector will pay a good price to find exactly the right person they need for their position.

How do you see the sector develop in the next couple of years?
Agriculture is the biggest and highest potential sector in Cambodia if you like it or not. Cambodia is basically an agrarian society. 80 percent of our population live in the countryside and six to nine million people are employed in agriculture. It is much bigger than the garment sector. Agriculture is also the sector in which development has the biggest impact because development will trickle down to the very farmer. If we introduce the right policies and implement them right it will have a serious impact on our society in general.

Could you explain that a little bit?
If I am a rice miller and I buy my paddy from the farmers and I pay him a good price it will increase his standard of living. Then he will be encouraged to work much harder to get a higher yield in the next harvest. When they have a higher income the farmers can send their children to school so they have better chances in their future.

Many people see better chances in starting an own business than in working for somebody else. How good are chances of starting an own business in agriculture with little capital?
Well, real entrepreneurs who succeeded always started with hardly anything in their pockets. What you need first and foremost is passion if you want to succeed. You need that to withstand all the initial failure and disappointment. Of course you need to do your homework and be familiar with sector otherwise you should not start a business there. You need to assess yourself and find out where you can perform well. You cannot jump blindfold into any sector because you think it is promising.

What would be a good way to assess oneself?
Of course one thing would be an internship. In Singapore, the US and many other countries it is required of you to finish a certain amount of internship months before you get your degree. Only through internships you learn about the practicality of things. What they teach you at the university is pure theory. But when you are then confronted in reality you are caught completely off-guard when you are dealing with complicated buyers. Of course those things are not in the book. On top you have a good chance of getting hired when the employer sees that you are smart, hard working, proactive and creative.

How would you recommend students to prepare for ASEAN 2015?
With the free flow of goods, services and human resources you cannot deny that many foreign professionals will enter the Cambodian job market. We don’t have the pool of skill in the country so we need foreign workers. But nobody should fear that. Students just have to learn more skills at the companies they intern because what they will teach you is exactly what they need from you.

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