Cambodian skills gap will take a generation to fix, says expert

Author: Poorna Rodrigo | Date: 18 Jan 2017

Country drafting labour cooperation agreement with the Philippines as it continues its economic development

It will take at least a generation before Cambodia can fill a serious gap in the country’s skilled and professional labour force, an industry expert has warned – a problem which dates back to the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
Today, 38 years after Pol Pot was forced from power by a Vietnamese invasion, the country is still suffering from skills shortages that originated in an exodus of many educated professionals and the dismantling of the education system.
As a result, the skills challenge is more severe in the south-east Asian country than its neighbours. “The skill gap is a huge challenge here, as most students who graduate from any university have a quite low level of skills and are very far from being able to compete with fresh graduates from neighbouring countries,” said Amaury de Saint Blanquat, managing director of Phnom Penh-based HR and management consultancy Saint Blanquat & Associates.
The huge gap in skills means that Cambodia has “to start at primary schools today” for this generation’s university graduates to benefit, Blanquat said.
In 2015, the Asian Development Bank told Cambodia that a “concerted effort is needed to resolve this education-skills mismatch,” in an employment study entitled Cambodia: Addressing the skills gap.
Looking for a remedy, in mid-2016 Cambodia’s minister of education, youth and sport, Dr Hang Chuon Naron started “a nationwide survey to get a better understanding of the situation, from primary school to university and private sector needs in terms of skills for the future,” though survey results have not yet been released.
With World Bank funding, the minister also began a project last year to test the implementation of 200 new primary schools with new teaching methods.
Tapping regional support to improve local skills, Cambodia and the Philippines are now in the process of drafting a labour cooperation agreement, and during Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Cambodia in December 2016 the two countries discussed a programme to provide vocational training to Cambodians, local media reports said.
Separately, last May, the two countries signed a declaration of cooperation on migrant workers. The Philippines “have excellent universities, and you can find people from the Philippines working all over the world in management positions, including in Cambodia,” Blanquat said. “I’m quite sure that the Philippines model could be useful to Cambodia.” He added that one of the most difficult things for employers in Cambodia is finding good middle managers.
With few teachers in the country by the end of the civil war, the government immediately recruited teachers who had not even graduated from secondary school themselves. During the 10 years that followed “teachers with a baccalaureate [secondary school grade] and a little bit of university” were commonplace, Blanquat said. It took a generation to recruit teachers who were more suitably qualified to be teachers in the country, he added.
By contrast, neighbouring Singapore recently outperformed the rest of the world in the quality, equity and efficiency of its school systems, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, released in December 2016. Blanquat added: “Cambodia started at a very low level and things are improving slowly.”