IT training centre director says Cambodia needs to start realising its potential
A LACK of computer use in Cambodian businesses, in part due to high costs of Internet access, is creating a job shortage for the country’s information and communications technology graduates and preventing the development of a potentially lucrative ICT industry, a local educator says.
Vincent Drouillard, director at the Centre for Information Systems Training (CIST), says greater and more sophisticated computer use among businesses is essential for the development of a so-called business process outsourcing (BPO) industry to create jobs, drive economic growth and potentially earn valuable export revenues.
“A strong internal market with high competency levels is a strong point when it comes to selling services outside of the country,” he said. “Outsourcing services is definitely an opportunity for Cambodia.”
However, research presented by CIST last month shows the country is starting from a low base. A CIST survey of ICT usage in private companies estimated that there were just 45,700 computers in use in Cambodian businesses with more than 10 employees, 38,800 of them in Phnom Penh.
Usage was growing around 20 percent a year, but most systems and network jobs were handled in-house, according to CIST Company Department Coordinator Sahak Nimol.
Just 15 percent of the companies surveyed completely outsourced these jobs, with 84 percent using internal staff, indicating huge room for development of an industry to manage firms’ IT needs.
A further 1 percent of respondents currently outsourced but planned to internalise the work, she said. Just 30 percent of companies outsourced Web site development.
“This is very low compared to developed countries,” said Sahak Nimol, adding the preference to manage systems in-house was due to the low service quality of many existing providers, the perception that one in-house IT person can take care of all the company’s needs, and a desire to retain any highly skilled graduates that get a foot in the door.
According to Drouillard, Cambodia has the potential to follow in India’s footsteps and export business services, albeit on a smaller scale. The emerging South Asian economy also started from a low base but quickly became a global outsourcer, he said. Revenues from business process outsourcing reached US$21.6 billion, or 3.6 percent of gross domestic product by 2004, including $13.4 billion in exports, before rapidly expanding to around $64 billion today, or 5.5 percent of GDP. Of that total, $40.9 billion in revenues come from abroad, Drouillard said.
“A strong IT sector is a better opportunity for Cambodia than a strong garment sector or a strong construction sector because it is more stable, it is less driven by foreign capital, it is less capital intensive and it has the potential to create more jobs locally, better jobs and better salaries,” he said.
India made the transition through government initiatives, human capital building, promoting computer use, and through actively promoting BPO, Drouillard said. India targeted 100 million Internet connections by 2008, or 10 percent of the population, 1 million Internet cafes and committed to building IT infrastructure in 60,000 schools over 5 years.
“We should have 10,000 Internet cafes in Cambodia on a comparable basis and there are 343,” Drouillard said. “Less than 1 percent of Cambodians, have Internet connections. We should have 1 million, but we have 40,000.”
Mathieu Finzi, a telecoms researcher who worked with CIST on the survey, said education and workplace needs aside, Cambodia needed to make it easier for businesses to access the Internet if it hoped to unlock the potential of the ICT sector.
The high cost and low quality of Net access were key reasons for Internet penetration rates in Cambodia being the third lowest in Asia.
“You cannot have a competitive ICT market without competitive broadband prices,” he said.
Cambodia was churning out sufficient graduates to take advantage of any developing market for business process services, although they did not necessarily possess the types of skills needed by employers, Drouillard said.
CIST research showed there would be 3,671 graduates in 2012, more than double the 1,732 produced last year, but that just 1,000 new ICT jobs were created every year.
“On one hand it is an opportunity for the ICT sector. If the sector grows, it means the workforce will be available. On the other hand, it is also a major risk as job creation may not be at the expected level,” he said.
Whether Cambodian graduates had the right skills for the market was also in doubt. CIST’s research showed that just one quarter of the graduates from the country’s 32 higher education institutions that provided ICT education in 2008 were trained as technicians, with the rest obtaining graduate degrees.
However, almost half of all jobs in the sector are entry level jobs in IT support, and system and network administration.
“Usually these jobs are technician jobs in which two years training is more than enough. We train technicians and they should be the ones taking these kinds of jobs,” he said, adding that many technicians applied for degree programmes on graduation rather than entering the workforce in order to secure a better job.
Drouillard recommended the government look to the Philippines to address the mismatch. Manila identified areas of competencies and skills required in the ICT sector and focussed schools’ curricula on achieving standards for each skill, such as software development.
They also focused on so-called soft skills like critical thinking, customer engagement and the ability to deliver presentations, learning from mistakes made in India where the neglect of these skills meant only around 30 percent of graduates were employable.
“Cambodia decided clearly to promote private universities,” Drouillard said. “It’s a good choice to accelerate the development of the education sector, but they didn’t develop a framework with set targets for providers and set rules.”