As Cambodia prepares to participate in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), set to take effect at the end of this year, one of the most pressing issues facing the Kingdom is the need for a system of global education for its students and young people.
The AEC seeks to integrate Cambodia’s economy and markets with the rest of those in ASEAN. This is an extremely bold initiative and will necessitate that Cambodians up their game if they want to participate effectively in and benefit from the expected economic benefits for the entire region, one of the fastest growing areas in the world.
Foreign investors have regularly lamented the difficulty of finding qualified employees to hire for their local investment projects. Many companies have reluctantly come to the conclusion that most new staff will have to be trained (or retrained) in-house, including those applicants proudly waving multiple diplomas.
With the AEC around the corner, this hurdle for the private sector in the Kingdom, barring targeted and immediate action, will only become higher.
Of even greater concern, the AEC, in theory, includes the free flow of labour. Will better-trained Malaysians, Thais or Filipinos, fluent in English, well-grounded in international business practices and cross-culturally savvy, come to Cambodia and out-compete Cambodians for jobs in their own market? Conversely, how will Cambodians be able to operate effectively in their neighbours’ business environments?
So what is actually needed? The private, public and nongovernmental sectors all need people who after leaving university can be hired and then hit the ground running, see opportunities and move on them, think proactively, work collaboratively within a team on shared goals, solve day-to-day problems, understand “international best practices” and generally add value quickly to the work at hand.
At present, too many Cambodians come out of institutes of higher education with few, if any, of these skills.
Sure, there are thousands of Cambodians who have obtained degrees from schools overseas who have returned home with many of these talents. But that is not enough. Cambodian-based colleges and universities must also fine-tune their curricula to meet these pressing needs.
Sciaroni & Associates, for its part, has run an internship program for several years now, whereby young Cambodians, including those recruited via the US Ambassador Bill Todd’s Youth Council internship program, work part-time inside the firm gaining these skill sets. One intern made significant progress and was subsequently hired full-time. Others quickly landed jobs elsewhere in the private sector.
Along these lines, the private sector can and should play a critical role. More businesses need to take on interns, ideally on a “for credit” or paid basis, and work with the Kingdoms’ institutes of higher education to get these off the ground.
Cambodia’s universities need to take a lead role as well, by re-examining their programs to determine how best to meet the existing demands ofthe workplace. Research indicates that 60 per cent of university graduates matriculate with degrees in soft sciences when what the economy needs is engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Not enough is being done on this front.
Universities also need to be more proactive and reach out to the private sector to find ways of establishing programs of mutual benefit, most importantly for the students themselves.
On the positive side, there is an initiative on the table to create a Working Group on Education as part of the Government-Private Sector Forum (G-PSF). The G-PSF was established in 1999 at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen to provide a reliable dialogue mechanism for consultation between the government and the private sector on issues ranging from long-range policy to day-to-day operations to encourage private sector initiatives.
The vision for education is to bring together the private education establishment, the royal government, and the private sector in one setting so that priorities can be set and policies developed, all aimed at matching education with skills required by the business community. This is a great idea and should be pushed forward expeditiously. Moreover, the energetic and thoughtful Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron has crafted a substantial blueprint for critical education reforms. His efforts need full political and budgetary support.
Cambodians have made enormous strides in the use of modern technology since the early days of UNTAC back in 1992, when literally not more than a handful of people had ever even seen a computer. Witness the more than 1.5 million Cambodians today who now have Facebook accounts. But how many of these young smartphone users can draft a business plan, conduct in-house research using Google on ASEAN-based market opportunities or negotiate in English, Japanese, Chinese or Indonesian with potential new business partners from the region and beyond?
One of the great things about Cambodian youth is that, given the chance, most are eager and able to learn almost anything. They need assistance from the institutions at hand to give them the opportunities
to do so. And they need access to practical skills that can be put to use straight away upon graduation.
The time is now to support and unleash this critical potential. Rest assured, the other members of ASEAN are not going to sit idly by and wait for Cambodia to catch up.
Bretton Sciaroni, the senior partner at Sciaroni & Associates, is the chairman of American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia and the International Business Chamber.