Bridging Cambodia’s Skill Gap

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160610 - b2b - article - Bridging Cambodia's Skill Gap

One of the most chronic complaints we hear at B2B from our partners relates to the significant misalignment between what universities teach and the skills future employees need to enter the professional workforce. Finding the right team of employees can be one of the biggest headaches when entering the Cambodian market, but there are programmes that can help improve your new hires. The local business community and employer associations should also continue to take an active interest in the future of education, so that high schools and universities understand what skills are lacking in their curriculum as the Kingdom rebuilds towards a bright future.

Education gaps

Public spending in Cambodia is, as a rule, quite low compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. This year’s budget allocates $497 million to the Ministry of Education, or 3.27 percent of the overall GDP, less than Laos (4.27 percent), Thailand (4.9 percent in 2012) and Vietnam (6.3 per cent in 2012). Much of Cambodia’s funding can also be siphoned off by rent-seeking activities like corruption, unofficial payments, and mismanagement, according to UNESCO. Another unfortunate reality of Cambodia’s education system is that it is still recovering from decades of turmoil, whereby institutional knowledge and experience is lacking across the board.

By the time students hit university, many are still lacking basic skills, says Pily Wong, CEO of MDP Cambodia and former VP of Cambodia’s ICT (Informa­tion and Communication Technology) Federation, which means they are still playing catch up when they should be advancing their studies. “The problem is not about the universities, but the education system as a whole. If the high school graduates come into universities with some lacking in their foundation, how can the universities teach advanced curricula? My personal perception is that some universities just teach what they think they should teach to adapt to the qualification of their students, but not to adapt to the job market,” he says.

Pily Wong, MDP Cambodia

“The heads of  several universities have shared with me that students sometimes complain about the subjects being too hard; when they fail their exams, the parents come to complain to the school,” he adds.

Where to improve

Despite the challenges facing the education system, business leaders have several concrete suggestions for how to improve Cambodia’s education system. One key area that needs to be improved is teaching university students pursuing business and technology degrees the “soft skills” that are in increasing demand in Phnom Penh. While many of these skills are based in Western business culture, they have also become the norm across Asian capitals.

“In terms of the technical skills, I believe universities are providing a reasonable base level of knowledge but in terms of soft skills I think there is still a big gap. To be successful in the modern workplace requires a strong set of soft skills to cope with the fast-changing and competitive environment. In our experience, the graduates who have stronger soft skills, perform better and progress faster,” says Gabriel Helmy, Founder and CEO of The Capacity Specialists.

Gabriel Helmy, The Capacity Specialists

One cross cultural trainer that we interviewed says the feedback from his clients is that many Khmer employees lack basic soft skills, such as how to behave professionally in the business sphere. “Examples of what’s lacking include arriving on time for a meeting, keeping a deadline, how to do an effective presentation, and taking ownership for tasks entrusted to them,” he explains. Helmy and Wong also identify skills such as timekeeping, working together on a team, networking, decision making, and critical thinking/analysis as areas for improvement.

Besides soft skills, there is also a growing demand for more advanced computer and tech skills, says Wong, so Cambodia can catch up with Thai and Vietnamese competitors. Cambodian students would greatly benefit from university programmes that teach advanced courses on Java/net programming, network engineering, web development, mobile app development, architecture modelling, and graphic design. While some of these courses are already taught by NGOs, they should also be incorporated into the university system. These skills will be in higher demand as Cambodia integrates into the ASEAN economy.

How to improve

Several companies in Phnom Penh offer skills training for Khmer students and employees who hope to improve their business skills. Other companies have found success with in-house training programmes to improve the capacity of their staff and help them reach their full educational potential. However, this is not enough, particularly when taking a long-term view of the situation. Business leaders agree that Cambodia will have to rethink how it teaches advanced courses, particularly for students hoping to work in business or for foreign companies.  Wong believes that more coordination between employer associations, like the ICT Federation, and the Ministry of Education could help to bridge the gap.