Students listen to a lecturer at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh.
Two years after graduating from university, Chum Thoeun still didn’t have a job.
The 25-year-old alumnus of the Royal University of Law and Economics said he felt stymied not only by a job market based on personal or family connections with employers, but also by the overly broad education he had received.
Finding himself aimless and ill-prepared for a career, he finally accepted a job as an English teacher.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen was recently boasting of impressive gains in youth employment, university students and labor market insiders were painting a much dimmer picture.
Hun Sen said during a speech last month at the National Institute of Education that 75 percent more graduating students were landing jobs in 2008 than last year, an improvement he attributed to the nation’s political stability.
Meanwhile, Kheng Khemra, deputy director of the labor ministry’s department for vocational training, said two-thirds of graduates this year have found employment.
But the reality, according to Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, was that only about ten percent of students were able to enter the job market immediately upon graduating.
The government was failing in its responsibility and needed to do more to cultivate job opportunities for youth, Chhun said.
Pushing for more vocational programs in the universities, in practical fields such as agriculture and commerce, and developing relationships with reputable employers willing to invest in improving the country’s human resources, would be a start, he said.
“Many graduates only find employment in fields unrelated to their study, indicating a mismatch between their higher education provision and labor force needs,” David Ford, a chemistry professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), wrote in a 2006 article published in the journal International Higher Education entitled “Cambodian Higher Education – Growing Pains.”
The mismatch, he said, “has produced an oversupply of poorly trained graduates.”
Independent economics consultant Sok Sina said youth employment has been growing. While it’s much higher than ten percent, he said, it remains only “at between 20 and 30 percent.”
The situation was partly a problem of rising expectations, Sina added.
“In many cases, graduates are unemployed because they have degrees and demand high salaries, but most available jobs have low salaries,” Sina said.
Luise Ahrens, an American nun who arrived in Cambodia in 1991 as a adviser to the education ministry, said students “don’t see themselves starting from the ground floor and working their way up.”
“They study management and think they’ll get jobs as managers,” she said.
Seu Sopheak, a recruitment consultant at HR Inc., said the overwhelming majority of the 25,000 students graduating each year didn’t know how to market themselves to employers and lacked even the most fundamental job search skills, such as resume writing.
Students often ignored important stepping stones to high-end jobs, such as networking while still enrolled in school and pursuing internships. Workplace inexperience was especially damming since many companies required applicants to already have two years experience in the field.
The most glaring gaps in the marketability of unemployed youth were English and computer skills, both of which were essential in today’s technologically and globally oriented work environment, Sopheak said.
Saneth, a fourth-year student in business administration at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, settled for a job as a printing house sales clerk after receiving rejections from the more lucrative businesses and NGOs he had hoped to work for.
“I am concerned about my future,” said Saneth. “I seem to have learned little from school since two years of my education were general studies which didn’t focus on specific skills.”
U Kheng, a fourth-year English major at Build Bright University, said she has received only rejections since her education failed to provide her with the credentials NGOs and sophisticated companies demanded.
“I half blame myself and half my school,” she said. “My school has no discipline. It doesn’t care if students attend class. This makes students lazy, and, after a while, I let myself become lazy.”