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Cambodia suffering a lack of depth in skilled-worker pool

Cambodian children are often put into work by their parents before they finish school. VIREAK MAI
Cambodian children are often put into work by their parents before they finish school. VIREAK MAI

Cambodia suffering a lack of depth in skilled-worker pool

Kouch Pheng, president of Advanced Glory Logistics Group (Cambodia), is in the business of overcoming obstacles. His Phnom Penh-based freight-forwarding company handles a daily dose of pot-holed roads, unscripted shipping delays and Kafka-esque government red tape – yet still manages to deliver its client’s cargo shipments on time.

But keeping his business running smoothly requires a skilled team of highly resourceful individuals. And filling the roster can be a daunting challenge.

Logistics and supply-chain management are not on the Cambodian curriculum, and the Kingdom’s shallow skilled labour pool can be far more difficult to navigate than any logistics snafu, says Pheng.

“When talking about the skill and development of Cambodian human capital, I believe that in any industry there is a need for hard and soft skills,” he explains.

“So the challenge for Cambodia’s human capital is to have more technical and vocational training in specific fields that the country would like to develop according to its Industrial Development Policy.”

Bobby Fajardo, executive assistant manager of the Intercontinental Hotel in Phnom Penh, faces a similar staffing dilemma. While the hotel encourages local hires, it has had to import skilled foreign talent to fill its top-tier positions. Cambodian applicants fall far short in terms of management skills and experience, he says.

Fajardo, a Philippine national who has worked in a number of different tourism markets, says that while Cambodians often gravitate to the hospitality sector, applicants can lack the skills that define the industry’s professionalism.

“You need technical skills, logic and patience, and you’re expected to make quick – but correct – decisions and [excel] at problem solving,” he explains.

In an effort to bridge this skills gap and develop its human capital, the Intercontinental Hotel has established a training program for its new local student hires.

“We expose them completely to the food and beverage side, front office side [and other aspects of the hotel], and then after six months they decide which area they want to continue in,” he said.

Studies have shown that rapid economic growth and an influx of foreign investment are creating job opportunities in Cambodia, but many local youth lack the required skill set for these positions.

A report released last month by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) noted that four out of every 10 Cambodian youth lacked sufficient education to adequately perform their jobs.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Logistics is one of the sectors struggling to fill vacancies for skilled workers. Pha Lina

“Low secondary and higher school enrolment and quality has led to a mismatch between the skills young workers have and those employers seek,” the report, Cambodia: Addressing the Skills Gap, said.

The lack of skills inhibits economic diversification and restricts investment, which will consequently suppress Cambodia’s overall growth, it warned.

In looking for the root causes of this skills gap, the report’s authors found that many Cambodian children exit the school system prematurely so that they can work and support their family financially or help out with household chores. The decision is a result of families being ill-informed of the long-term economic returns of investing in secondary education.

“A household facing economic hardship may decide to take some children out of school so they can contribute immediately to household income,” the report said, adding that parents are more likely to do this if prospects in the labour market seem limited.

The report also cited the poor quality of education as a primary reason for the country’s skills gap, noting that “only a tiny” fraction of primary school teachers have completed secondary school themselves.

Heng Sour, director general for administration and finance at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said the government must work together with the private sector to encourage youth not just to stay in school but to pursue in-demand skills. He said students too often study subjects that are not applicable to the job market.

“For example, technical skills are highly needed and highly paid for but, maybe because of [students’] mindsets, they do not go into those skills,” he said. “Instead they go into social sciences because they think it’s fancy and that they can sit in an office or something like that.”

Overall, he says, Cambodia needs to put a stronger emphasis on education and vocational training if it is to move beyond an entry-level economy.

Din Virak, director of V Capital Institute, which provides corporate training services, insists the motivation is there, as Cambodians themselves aspire to job security and higher disposable income. He says youth are increasingly transferring out of low-paying agricultural and home-based jobs into more technical jobs that come with more entitlements.

“Before, there were many people who worked in the household, and now those people don’t want to work in the household anymore,” Virak said. “They go to work in a factory and get an employment card, social security, et cetera. In doing so, they move from the informal sector to the formal sector.”​

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