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Putting theory into practice

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Cambodia produces too many IT graduates every year for the limited jobs available – and many lack the hands-on experience the sector needs

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Sovann Philong

A Cambodian IT student comes to grips with the reality of the workplace.

CAMBODIA's universities are pumping out more graduates than its information technology sector can absorb.

While the exact number is unknown - the Ministry of Education does not release full figures - the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) alone has produced around 500 IT graduates each year since 1997. Norton, Build Bright, Setec and Pannasastra universities also offer IT courses.

Ouk Chhieng, head of the computer science department at RUPP, said only 25 to 30 percent of IT graduates would find full-time work while a further 20 percent would be employed in temporary or part-time positions.

Those lucky enough to find a job were far from the finished product, said Erya Houn Heng, president and CEO of First Cambodia. "They need a lot of guidance in a real working environment and usually require one to two years' training before they can be considered efficient workers."

First Cambodia employs about 180 people in Laos and Cambodia, all drawn from local universities. It recruits around 30 new employees each year, picking just three or four out of every 100 it sees. While the average starting salary for a new employee is $150 per month, experienced workers can earn anywhere from $200 to $4,000 for senior managers.

Norton University graduate Min Phannarak works for software development company Arocore. Incredibly, or perhaps typically, when he enrolled to study IT he didn't even know how to turn a computer on.

He said his degree had not prepared him for work in the sector, and with no computer at home it was difficult to practice his skills.

"At university you learn the theory of software, but you don't know how it works - you are just told that you will need it in the future," he said.

But he was one of the lucky ones, he said. Most of his fellow graduates were unemployed or worked at computer shops for $80 to $100 a month.

They are like rough diamonds that have not yet been polished.

Arocore CEO Kit Hargreaves, who employs 13 Cambodians, said finding qualified graduates was difficult, particularly as no universities or schools in Cambodia taught Flash, a common development program.

Most of Arocore's Cambodian staff did manual database work as their skill levels were still low, Hargreaves said.

"We actually only have a couple of guys I can trust to be really good programmers."

He said a lack of intuition about computers and applications stemmed from inadequate teaching and the fact that few Cambodians had grown up around computers.

"What they learned in school - how to type code in theory or how to follow instructions in a book -  isn't what makes a good programmer," he said.

"What makes a good programmer is being able to apply old technologies or established bits of code in a new and intuitive way, which is something Khmers have a long way to go in grasping."

Sous Sakal, business development manager at software design firm Blue Technology, said Cambodian programmers needed more practical work experience.

"I think local universities produce quality students; [but] they have not yet had the opportunities to develop to their full potential," he said.

"They are like rough diamonds that have not been polished."

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