When the European Institute of Business Administration released its annual “Global Talent Competitive Index” (GTCI) report earlier this year, Cambodia moved from 108th to 107th.

Despite being a positive move forwards, it illustrated Cambodia was very much behind and in need of a competitive boost.

With an ambition to be an upper-middle-income country by 2030, Cambodia needs to boost its competitiveness by strengthening its talent pool.

According to the GTCI, Cambodia scored poorly in talent growth (119th), vocational and technical training (119th), and global knowledge skills (117th).

Moreover, in comparison to the other Asean countries, with the exception of Myanmar, Cambodia came last within the region.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore came in second out of 125 countries, with Malaysia placing 27th, Brunei 36th, the Philippines 58th, Thailand 66th, Indonesia 67th, Laos 91st and Vietnam 92nd.

Despite having to compete in the international arena, how is Cambodia to compete regionally amid an impending regional economic integration characterised not only by the free movement of goods, services and investments, but also the flow of capital and skills across national borders?

Retaining talent educated abroad

Meanwhile, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will fundamentally change how we live, work, and relate to one another.

With a range of new technologies in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

How will Cambodia cope with the disruptions? Both scenarios present a bleak future for the country.

In the face of rising global competition and rapid technological change, we are not only forced to rethink how our education system develops talent, but also how we attract and retain top talent now to be a competitive and innovative nation.

We can start with Cambodia’s foreign-educated students.

Every year, more and more Cambodians are pursuing higher education abroad in the hope of improving their future prospects.

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, 5,469 Cambodian students studied abroad in 2017 in comparison to 4,231 in 2012, and it’s expected the trend will only continue to rise with a rapidly growing economy.

However, upon graduation, many are faced with the daunting decision of whether or not to return home.

With a foreign degree, these individuals become part of an international talent pool that is highly demanded by countries all over the world.

In particular, high-income countries depend on foreign talent to sustain their economies.

For instance, in Canada and Australia, international students have an opportunity to work and live in the country after their studies, which can eventually lead to permanent residency.

As enticing as this may seem for Cambodian students studying abroad, it results in local talent contributing to other economies rather than their own.

Cambodia’s foreign-educated students are representative of a talent pool with advanced knowledge and skills that will be pivotal to our future.

When building Cambodia’s future workforce, the government should prioritise these students as a talent group to attract and retain – a model that has been adopted by China, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Talent to diversify economy Cambodia’s economic transformation is providing great opportunities for Cambodia’s foreign-educated students.

Primarily dominated by the textiles, construction and tourism industries, Cambodia’s economy has sustained an average growth rate of 7.7 per cent between 1995 and 2018.

To support long-term economic growth, Cambodia requires stronger human capital to facilitate economic diversification – which will be dependent on using modern technologies and fostering entrepreneurship.

However, returnees face significant challenges when seeking to apply their knowledge, experiences and skills in the domestic job market.

Some problems they face include having weaker language skills compared with domestic graduates, a lack of domestic connections, a lack of career opportunities in their field of study, and a lack of career opportunities at both public and private enterprises.

The government should develop a governmental workforce development agency dedicated to building a workforce ready for Cambodia’s future economy.

To support returnees, the agency could provide career support, educational and career guidance, and networking opportunities.

To be a competitive and innovative nation, Cambodia’s foreign-educated students can help us unleash our hidden potential.

If we don’t take advantage of their talents, someone else will.

Darren Touch is a Schwarzman Scholar pursuing a Masters in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University. He recently graduated with a Masters in Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia.