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Shifting gears


Vocational training can provide a bridge for rural youths to enter the workforce, and lessen the need for them to seek employment abroad, according to experts with the Asian Development Bank.

Tep Sopoan, 19, at an auto mechanics class at the Battambang Institute of Technology. An orphan from Anlong On village in Thmor Khol district, he dropped out of school before completing Grade 9. A skills-bridging project allowed him to re-enter the education system and eventually pass the institute’s entrance exam.

In what areas is the mismatch between skills the education system produces and those needed by the private sector most pronounced, and how is this impeding development?

Emerging education systems tend to produce graduates in fields such as foreign languages, business, law, finance, accounts, where supply often exceeds demand. The private sector, especially small and medium enterprises, requires technicians with adequate skills.  However, the education systems in place generally keep producing graduates with inadequate skills and unrealistic aspirations. This mismatch is profound and leads to serious underemployment or unemployment situations as graduates flow into the job market with ill-suited skills and qualifications.

It also leads to a sub-optimal utilisation of the labour force and human resources in general. On the other hand, it must be recognised that the structural change in Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy has been remarkable, and the adaptation of the education/training providers to changing demands has been severely challenged.  

As the agricultural sector becomes more mechanised, it will become less labour-intensive. What can be done to ensure this does not lead to higher unemployment?

ADB’s country strategy focuses on reducing poverty and promoting inclusive growth with an integrated approach to rural development, targeting the areas where most poor reside. With nearly 75 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture, the focus on competitive farms and agribusiness enterprises will create more productive jobs and incomes. However, as agricultural commercialisation takes hold, in contrast to subsistence and smallholder activities, urban–rural linkages will be required to provide a catalyst for higher incomes in both rural and urban settings.

Connectivity between rural communities and urban growth centers will increase, and rural communities will benefit from improved access to markets and social services. In order to ensure that a more commercial mechanised agriculture does not lead to more overall unemployment as agriculture becomes less labour-intensive, two approaches are being pursued under ADB’s country strategy: first to stimulate the growth of secondary towns, enabling them to serve as regional growth poles and sources of jobs; and second, to strengthen the vocational training facilities in the provinces to prepare Cambodia’s youth for more productive careers.

Rural Cambodians face tremendous hurdles in achieving basic education, with drop-out rates surging after primary school. What can be done to assist rural youths who have not had the educational opportunities available to youths in towns and cities?

Rates of educational attainment in rural Cambodia, while improving among the younger generation, remain low, particularly for women.  Two-thirds of rural women over the age of 25 have not completed primary school, for example.  

Young adults who have not completed lower secondary education (Grade 9) are not eligible to enter the formal technical and vocational education and training (TVET) system under the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training.  

A number of efforts are underway to develop so-called skills bridging programs that bring school drop-outs up to the required standard for TVET programs.  For many, however, even skills bridging will not be an option if they dropped out early in their education.  

Non-formal TVET programs can help.  The MOLVT’s community-based Voucher Skills Training Program can help poor families improve specific skills and raise incomes. Civil society and social enterprises play a vital role in developing skills for people who have not been able to complete school.   

What are the dangers of failing to address underemployment and unemployment in rural Cambodia?
Rural unemployment and underemployment in Cambodia lead to labour migration, both to cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and across borders to Thailand, Vietnam and beyond.  Migration brings with it risks of trafficking and exploitation, as witnessed with the recent cases of Cambodian maids in Malaysia. Poverty and a lack of local jobs are what made these rural women — most of whom had never even  travelled to Phnom Penh — take on the risks of migration.  

Trafficking does not only affect women, men can be victims as well. Formal and non-formal technical and vocational training opportunities that meet local labour market needs can reduce migration, keep families together, and increase local incomes.

Efforts both to improve the quantity and quality of jobs in provincial areas, and to provide skills training in line with market demands, will be a critical part of the solution to these deep-seated social problems.

The skills-bridging program offers youths who dropped out of school a new avenue of re-entering the educational system. How successful has this pilot project been? Will it be fine-tuned and expanded?

Since 2010, the skills bridging program has been tested  in Kampot, Battambang, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap using three different approaches to tutor young people in math, science, and Khmer language.  In one model, the courses take place at the Provincial Training Centre.  In another, they are offered through    an NGO.  

The third approach is community-based, with local tutors (grade 12 graduates) working with young people in their communities.  Preliminary results show that the community-based model is particularly effective.   

The program has been very successful in helping those who are recent dropouts from grades 8-9. The dropouts are interviewed to prove their commitment to further learning opportunities, especially vocational and technical education.

The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has committed to mobilise resources and partners to expand the program nationwide after the pilot testing is completed this coming October.

How important is private-sector co-operation to the development of Cambodia’s vocational, polytechnic and university education systems?

Private sector co-operation is a critical factor in making vocational, polytechnic and university systems more relevant to labour market demands.  Ongoing private sector involvement in vocational training institutes, combined with the receptiveness of vocational, polytechnic and university systems to labour market signals, can play an important role in making curriculums and programs align with the needs of business and the community at large.

In addition, public-private partnerships in the vocational training arena can assist in financing industry-oriented training centres, thereby creating bridges from training courses to the work place.

The surge in privately run universities has been accompanied by a surge in marketing and promotion of the degrees they offer. Has this created false assumptions about the skills needed for the new employment opportunities emerging in Cambodia?

This is a definite concern in Cambodia. Some universities are largely diploma mills that produce graduates lacking the necessary skills for gainful employment. And yes, this situation may have distorted student perceptions of the labour market. In particular, students appear to be attracted much more to university education than to often more relevant vocational courses.

Young high school graduates should be properly guided to choose their post-secondary specialized fields of studies otherwise, by the time they realize, their chosen courses may not be relevant for the labor market and they will face difficulties in finding employment after graduation. The recently-formed National Employment Agency is making major efforts to address this use.

However, most higher education graduates don’t find relevant jobs in their fields of their specialization, and thus experience declining interest, low motivation and confidence, and low wages.  

Numerous NGOs offer vocational training, but is there a need for a national standardised system for providing certification that prospective employers can trust?

Vocational training offered by NGOs needs to be included in a national qualification framework and certified as equivalent to those nonformal training programs offered by MoLVT. We note that many vocational training programs run by NGOs focus on creating benefits for vulnerable children and youth for their immediate relief.

Some private and NGOs vocational centers are more advanced than public ones.   

A shift is under way to expand polytechnic centres in provincial areas. Can you update the progress on this and provide an overview of the strategy?
Equitable access to technical and vocational education opportunities for rural Cambodians is key to reducing rural poverty and creating relevant job skills. ADB supports the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training in strengthening TVET management capacity and provincial training centers.

Since TVET must be highly responsive to the world of work, interventions cannot be limited to urban areas.  The demand for skills in provincial areas is high in the fields of construction, mechanics, and ICT including English communication skills. A major current ADB TVET project supports the rehabilitation and establishment of regional as well as provincial training centers to widen quality access to TVET for rural youth.    

Some researchers have noted that Cambodia’s youthful population offers a “demographic windfall”. How can NGOs contribute to ensuring that this generation has the opportunity to realize its full potential?

Cambodia’s large and youthful population has the potential to offer a demographic dividend – where the proportion of the working population is larger than the dependent or non-working population especially when those young people are educated and skilled members of a healthy and productive labor force.

The alternative is a generation without hope for decent employment, which can be a problem for families, the economy, and society.  

If young people can’t find stable employment, the sense of frustration and idleness can pose significant challenges to young people themselves, but also economic and social costs.  NGOs with their grassroots experience have a vital role to play in promoting youth development and ensuring that the next generation has the opportunity to realize its full potential.  

Cambodia has a wealth of NGOs active in delivering services in education, training and health, for example. Cambodian NGOs that work to promote civic engagement and a youth volunteering culture also have an important role to play.

Answers provided by ADB Cambodia staff, including Peter Brimble, Sam Sideth Dy, Karin Schelzig Bloom, Yasushi Hirosato



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