Students prepare to fill the leadership void at the country’s garment factories
With 269 apparel and footwear factories, Cambodia’s garment industry employs approximately 320,734 people, 293,664 of whom are women. However, only a small percentage of these workers are qualified to take on managerial positions. In response, a new initiative has been launched with cooperation between Cambodia’s private sector and academia, aiming to transform the sector by getting more university graduates to take leadership roles in the factories.
“In the Cambodian education system, there is no single course tailored for people to work in the factories at the management level,” said Mona Tep, the executive director of Cambodia Skills Development Center (CSDC), previously known as Garment Industry Productivity Center (GIPC). Part of the reason for this might be that university students do not see the garment industry as a glamorous career path. However, Mona Tep and other organisers say they believe that students will change their minds once they realise the possibilities within the garment industry, where there is a great demand for highly skilled Cambodians managers.
With US$3.4 million in grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2005 to 2008, GIPC offered training and consulting to make the Kingdom’s apparel industry more competitive globally. The recent collaboration between CSDC and University of Puthisastra (UP) is the first of its kind to prepare skilled Cambodians for jobs in management and as technical staff.
Now in its pilot phase, the first Production Management Certificate programme was launched early this year. The first three-month programme kicked off in January, training 20 students who passed a series of tests, including one on English language skills. Although there is an increasing number of graduates in Cambodia, many of them cannot break into the job force. “A major issue is they don’t want to work in factories,” explained Mona Tep. “It’s their mindset.”
Sok Puthyvuth, UP president, said, “The factories said they cannot find Cambodians who are capable of taking on the job in production management; our university wants to play a significant role in this area. It’s also a good opportunity for us to tie in with the garment industry”. Thus far, management jobs in Cambodian factories have been dominated by foreigners, who have the language skills to communicate with owners and investors who usually speak English or Chinese.
Both Mona Tep and Sok Puthyvuth said they look forward to expanding the programme, as the first course has already raised interest among factory owners in hiring their trainees.
With reports in the media of frequent strikes among low-skilled labourers making low wages, Cambodians tend to shy away from jobs at factories. And until now, there has been a dearth of capable Cambodians to climb the professional ladder in factories, even if there was interest.
But students like 23-year-old Chhun Sareth are changing all of that. “I want to play a role as a production management, which doesn’t interest many people now. But it will attract more people when I’m successful,” he said proudly of his decision to enroll in the $500 course.
“This programme will help them find positions with growth opportunities,” explained Mona Tep. “We’re developing internships for students. In the end, we hope this will be a model for school-to-work training, combining theoretical and practical skills, internships and that it can be replicated for other industries. It will help Cambodia grow leaders.”
An expert with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) told the Post that “the training that prepares fresh graduates for management jobs, such as line leaders and supervisers in factories, is good. But more importantly, it’s an issue of people’s perception. When talking about working in this industry, not many skilled people want the job, although the industry has improved and meets good standard”.
According to a research study by the think-tank Ideas42, a Harvard University-International Finance Corporation venture, released in November 2009, “investing in skills development is essential to maintain and strengthen the dynamism of the Cambodian garment industry”.
It may seem like a small start, but this group of 20 students at Puthisastra might just change the way Cambodia’s garment factories do business.