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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pushing a practical education

Pushing a practical education

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Tep Sopoan, 19, participates in an auto mechanics training class at the Battambang Institute of Technology yesterday.

A one-month course at the Polytechnic Institute of Battambang provided Man Phumrin with a job and the skills he says will ensure he never again has to sneak across the border to Thailand in search of work.

When Man Phumrin was trafficked into Thailand, his first month’s salary covered the cost the smugglers charged his employer in Samut Prakan.

When he returned a year later, police patrolling the train from Bangkok to the border asked to see his passport. Man Phumrin didn’t have one, so they pocketed his meagre savings.

“When I worked in Thailand, I never had a day off. It was so expensive, I could save only a little, and even then the police took that from me,” he said.

Now he’s a chef at a restaurant in Battambang, earning more than he made in Thailand and receiving free room and board. If the restaurant closed, he said, he was confident he’d easily find another job.

Man Phumrin is among those benefiting from a shift in Cambodia’s education system, under which the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training was pushing for more vocational training to match emerging opportunities in the labour market and providing those living in rural areas with greater access to vocational training to reduce their poverty, Tung Sopheap, a ministry official overseeing the vocat-ional education strengthening project, said yesterday.

This included the introduction of one-month training classes in trades, and village-based classes for young people who had dropped out of school that allowed them to re-enter state-run polytechnic institutes, Tung Sopheap said.

The construction of two new provincial training centres had been completed and bidding was under way for constructtion of five more, officials said.

The shift will also see five provincial polytechnic centres upgraded to regional ones, the development of a more practical curriculum and greater involvement of the private sector in vocational training, Labor Ministry Secretary of State Pich Sophoan said on Wednesday.

He was speaking at a press conference on the national drive to strengthen vocational training, which included the introduction of the first set of national standards on vocational training.

The competency standards had been developed by national and international experts with help from industrial advisory groups, officials said.

“What we are aiming for is a shift from selling labour to selling skills,” Pich Sophoan said. “If we can increase vocational training, there will be less incentive to go abroad to sell labour,” he said, adding that skilled workers would be less likely to be exploited.

He also pointed out that there were about 35,000 university graduates a year but only about 1,000 entering the workforce with formal, certified vocational skills. Foreign investors eyeing Cambodia to set up light manufacturing plants and food-processing ventures had pointed to the lack of a skilled workplace as a disincentive, he said.

Pich Sophoan compared Cambodia’s educational system to an inverted triangle, which produced an excess of graduates with business, English and accounting degrees, but left a critical shortage of workers certified with skills in construction, mechanics and information and communications technology.

Putu Kamayana, country director of the Asian Development Bank, said the ADB and the ministry had identified rural youths who had dropped out of school as a pool of untapped labour that could fill the skills gap.

A new skills-bridging project – which has been introduced in Battambang, Kampot and Phnom Penh – allows them a second chance to enter the country’s polytechnic institutes, which require entrants to have passed Grade Nine before they can sit the exam.

Kamayana said that in addition to filling the skills gap, the project would create “an opportunity to alleviate the root causes of poverty and exploitation”. “It’s a virtuous circle,” he said, adding that the ADB was in talks with the Japanese and Korean governments, the World Bank and USAID to increase funding and technical assistance to strengthen the country’s technical and vocational training system.

A deepening of the agriculture industry would lead to more food-processing and packaging plants, primarily located in provincial towns, and improved transport infrastructure regionally would result in greater exports, Kamayana said. Light manufacturing was likely to take off over the next five years due the country’s location, relatively business-friendly environment, dollarised economy and the declining cost of electricity that would follow once hydroelectric and other power projects came on stream, he said.

Sam Sideth Dy, an education specialist at the ADB, said technical and vocational training was a “quick way to reduce poverty”. The idea behind the skills-bridging project was “to create a model that can be used nationwide and is acceptable to the labour ministry”, he said.

Sam Sideth Dy also said the boom in private universities, and their marketing strategies, had confused young people into thinking that the degrees they received would be tickets to high-paying jobs.

Private universities, he said, were not responsive to the labour market, whereas vocational training was impeded by a dearth of marketing.

“There is something wrong in the messaging here.”

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