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Rural students thrive at IT school

Sandrine Nathan, outgoing director Vincent Drouillard, incoming director Pierre du Roquefeuil and Eric Mousette share a happy moment at a special wall that recognises sponsors at CIST which is changing its name soon to PNC. Photo by: STUART ALAN BECKER

ONE of the most highly-respected organisations that trains young Cambodians in Information Technology, the Center for Information Systems Training (CIST), only accepts high school graduates from poor families, and has 100 percent success in employment when they graduate.

Recruitment firms agree that CIST graduates are in high demand from employers.

CIST is changing its name later this year to reflect that of the French mother organisation Passerelles Numeriques, which means digital bridges – thus the new name will be PNC reflecting the Cambodia location. Sister organisations PNV does the same kind of work in Vietnam and PNP in the Philippines.

Director Vincent Drouillard, a successful businessman from the car parts industry in France, is leaving next month following a two-year stint heading the organisation.

He is being replaced by a former admiral in the French Navy and engineering teacher, Pierre de Roquefeuil.

Drouillard, who remarked how much he enjoyed his work in Cambodia, said the real social goal of the PNC model is to help Cambodian families be able to continue to live on their land in rural areas, by training their sons and daughters to be IT professionals.

“Our goal is not to bring the population of the countryside to the cities; that would not make sense. Our goal is exactly the opposite – it’s to contribute to helping the populations in the countryside to stay,” he said.

Drouillard said many Cambodian families in the provinces have a small piece of land that eventually becomes too small to sustain their children.

“If you want the family to stay in the countryside – you need to have a few members of the family who come to the city, earn money, have a good salary, and can send money back home. If you do not do that, then the whole family will come to the city, but will live in the slums. This is not what we want. This is a good way to avoid the rural populations coming to the big cities to live in the slums.”

CIST, which is soon to be called PNC, so we’ll refer to it as PNC now, is one of the most highly regarded suppliers of computer-trained young people in Cambodia. PNC produces only 100 graduates per year and provides them with an allowance of $50 per month to cover accommodation, food and health insurance.

The selection process is one of elimination, starting with 8,300 students all over Cambodia who are solicited from high schools to attend PNC presentations.

“We have 8,300 people who attend our information sessions each January until the beginning of February,” said consultant Sandrine Nathan.  

“The students who are interested send their applications, talk about themselves, why they are interested in IT, they talk about their families and so on.”

Out of the 8,300, only about 2,700 students send their applications and of those, 2,300 are selected to take the examinations, out of which only 880 pass the exam and are selected for interviews. The interview process selects 640 students who then undergo a social enquiry that determines the financial status of their household.

Only 100 students are finally chosen – all of whom have to meet the criteria of having less than $25 per month of available money to spend on schooling.  

Drouillard says newly selected students are shy and a little worried at first, but soon realise they are in a programme of considerable integrity.

“The students when we select them and they show up here on the first day, they are really frightened and really shy. They are used to being tricked and cheated everywhere, so they are wondering – where is the trick and who is going to cheat them,” he said.

“Step by step, they understand there is no trick here. It does not mean that they will not have to make an effort – they will have to put in a lot of effort. The rules are really clear and the confidence is coming naturally and they are growing. When you compare a student one year and even six months after coming here, you see a huge change,” he said.

All the classes are conducted in English and 60 percent of the students are girls.

“For a family, putting a girl in school is a loss of revenue,” Drouillard said.

“The family becomes a big player after they graduate. Around 30 percent of the revenue of our graduates is going back to the family. This allows the brothers and sisters to continue studying and allows them to pay for health expenses and even for food.”

The average revenue of the students’ families’ is about $50 per household.  

The wages coming into the households to support the families from the graduates makes a big difference, according to Drouillard.

“This is a huge impact and is more than doubling their revenue – so they have a high interest in this.”

Last year, in October 2010, the school graduated about 100 students. A month before graduation, more than half the students already had jobs.

“One month after graduation 80 percent had jobs; three months after graduation 99 percent of students had jobs, with the exception of one male student who ‘married a rich girl’,” Drouillard said with a laugh.

The average salary after graduation is $210 per month and after two years it grows to $300 and keeps climbing.

Students are enrolled into a newly-created “Solidarity Act” in which they are asked to give back to their successors who take their places after they graduate: starting with donations of $5 per month the first year, $10 the second and $15 the third.

“We don’t pretend that every single poor student can become an IT professional – but what we are saying is that within these poor populations there are a lot of students who are really deserving and really capable and we should give them a chance as a priority.  Once they are here, they really exemplify. Their behaviour is really a model for everybody,” Drouillard said.

French NGO PSE, which means For the Smile of a Child in English, also provides students from their school in an agreement with PNC.

One of the recent guest lecturers at PNC was Eric Mousette, who gave a presentation about possible IT career tracks on behalf of the industries he represents, including the ITC Business Association and the Nokor Group.

“No matter where students start from, there is always the possibility to give direction to their career path according to their own inclinations. If they are people oriented, they can become managers, team leaders, account managers and so forth,” Mousette said.

Mousette, who is also President of the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, divided the IT field into four distinct profiles: task oriented, technology oriented, business oriented and people oriented.

An IT person from PNC can become a journalist in five years. They can pursue an IT career or they can branch off to different careers.  

Another guest lecturer for CIST (PNC) students was the IT manager for the  Camboda Yellow Pages – himself a very successful graduate, to share his experience in the real IT world.

“We, the private sector, volunteered our time to help give perspective to the students in terms of their career and development options. We explained IT value chains in general and division of labour,” Mousette said.

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