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Solving the skills shortage

Students run through an academic exercise during a class at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh
Students run through an academic exercise during a class at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh late last month. Pha Lina

Solving the skills shortage

Despite tens of thousands of students graduating each year, Cambodia still faces a lack of skilled workers, especially in industrial and manufacturing sectors. There is little doubt that this problem will negatively affect the country’s future economic development.

Echoing this concern, Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed the need to build a quality and competent workforce ahead of the ASEAN Economic Community’s launch at the end of 2015.

Recently, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has taken important steps to address the skills shortage, such as by putting a cap on the issuance of licences to new universities in an attempt to strengthen the quality of higher education. According to Yok Ngov, secretary of state at the ministry, this restriction will only be applied to universities focusing on social studies; promoting science, technology and engineering skills will remain the ministry’s top priority.

In addition, the ministry has also been looking at a range of policies to improve the quality of professors, streamline the curriculum and increase teacher-student ratios, among other things. Achieving all these goals may be challenging, but with the right policies and a strong commitment, the government will definitely be able to reform the education system to meet the needs of the labour market.

Despite these positive initiatives, the lack of incentives for Cambodia’s universities and students is yet to be sufficiently discussed.

Offering science and technology courses is very expensive, and many universities cannot afford to do so. Only a handful of universities manage to teach related skills, generally with some kind of financial support or technical assistance from the government, partner universities overseas, foreign countries or private individuals. However, such funding is very volatile and cannot provide a long-term solution to resource scarcity in the education system.

One way to solve this problem is by having the government play an active role in providing universities with resources, such as funding for research, lab equipment and capacity-building for academic staff. Because these resources are very limited, the government should allocate them on a competitive basis.

Therefore, there must be clear assessment guidelines and policies for the Education Ministry to determine whether a university qualifies for funding and other support measures. The criteria might include a university’s academic standing, research achievements, positive social impact and contribution to skills development.

Of course, the government cannot support these universities indefinitely. The private sector has an important role to play here because it also greatly benefits from Cambodia having a large pool of skilled workers. Thus, what the government should do is create enough incentives to attract the private sector to take part in solving the skills shortage.

For instance, the government can create friendly policies that encourage both foreign and local companies to substantially contribute to the teaching of skills that are vital but not widely enough known. Moreover, the government can also help increase cooperation between universities and private companies in joint research programs or develop skills that will match the companies’ needs.

More importantly, the government must work closely with foreign partners, especially advanced industrialised nations, to facilitate technology transfers and the exchange of ideas.

Another major concern is the lack of interest of many students in science and technology. Cambodia is not an exception here – many countries face the same problem. The government should create incentives to encourage students to learn these skills in these fields. There are several ways of going about this, such as providing more full and partial scholarships, increasing work placements, creating more jobs, raising public awareness and inspiring students by showing them how scientific discoveries substantially change the way people live.

Cambodia really needs a future generation that is passionate and skilled in science, technology and engineering in order to compete with the rest of the world and grow the national economy.

The skills shortage problem presents a unique opportunity for the government to take a bold decision to rigorously reform the education system and improve the living conditions of millions of people.

Phoak Kung is the vice president for academic affairs at Mengly J Quach University

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