In late 2009, two months after graduating with a degree in economics, Heng Piseth found a job as a credit officer with a microfinance institution in Kampong Thom province.
Nearly four years later, his responsibilities at the office are the same as when Piseth started: loan disbursement, loan collection and following up with clients whose payments are due.
“I see that the room to grow into a higher position gets narrower and narrower,” Piseth said. “The competition is tough.”
The story reflects a larger trend confronting young Cambodians entering the financial sector’s job market. While thousands graduate university and move into entry-level jobs, the upper rungs are becoming increasingly scarce.
There’s little room for the ambitious to emerge from a crowded playing field.
Grant Knuckey, CEO of ANZ Royal Bank, said the Cambodian banking sector has a significant “talent deficit”. He said there is simply not the capacity for the industry to absorb the drove of inexperienced employees and train them adequately.
“The market is in fact growing significantly, but the ability for individuals to get promoted may be more difficult than in the past because the competition is more intense as more people join the industry,” he said.
“This is a good thing for the banking sector, because it raises the overall calibre of employees. At ANZ Royal we always promote on merit rather than length of service, and it seems the industry overall is headed more in that direction.”
The dim promotion prospects aren’t scaring job hunters. According to Knuckey, some 4,000 new hires moved into the financial sector in 2012, and more than 1,500 of those chose to work in commercial banking.
As a result of growth, demand for junior staff is increasing. Virac Socheata, business operations manager at human resources consultant Great Alliance, said the numbers are going up by 30 to 35 per cent year on year.
This wasn’t always the case.
“In 2005, the potential staff was limited and opportunities large,” Socheata said. Now, however, “it is very challenging to catch a chance at middle-management or higher”.
According to a recent report from the Cambodian Microfinance Association, the number of employees who work at the 35 microfinance institutions and Cambodia’s biggest commercial bank, Acleda, was about 23,000 at the end of June, a 6.6 per cent increase from an estimated 21,700 at the end of December 2012.
Sim Senacheert, chief executive officer at Prasac, said it is hard to distinguish among fresh graduates coming out of university because skill levels are similar. At Prasac, applicants must go through a rigorous recruitment process, including a screening, writing test, interview and reference checks.
“There are many newly graduated students looking for jobs at the moment. It is a bit hard to recruit staff who have banking experience for high positions.” Senacheert said.
For openings, Prasac receives a deluge of applications, not all up to standard.
“I think that to get jobs, students should focus on the quality of their knowledge instead of just focusing on having the degree,” he added.