By Joshua Wilwohl - November 29, 2013 (The Cambodia Daily)
Low-quality education is jeopardizing business growth in Cambodia, and local graduates will not be employable in skilled jobs if the government does not quickly implement educational reforms, business executives warned Thursday at the Cambodian Market Intel 2013 seminar in Phnom Penh.
During an hourlong panel discussion among five foreign business executives and the secretary-general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), the businessmen said Cambodia would struggle to attract foreign investment without improving the quality of secondary and university education.
Martin McCarthy, managing director and country representative of oil and gas conglomerate Total, said his organization has trouble finding local engineers capable of working on its projects.
“Total has its own university and courses at local universities, because university is too late. We must start reforms at ages 14 or 15…with math, physics and chemistry,” Mr. McCarthy said.
“We tend to find that students spend the first two years in university finishing what they learned in high school, and then once they graduate, we have to train them again,” he said.
“We then wait another two years before sending them out on a project because they are not prepared,” he added.
An International Labor Organization (ILO) report released Thursday shows that less than half of Cambodia’s 7.2 million workers had completed primary school, while 35.5 percent had completed secondary education and just 3.8 percent had a university degree.
“The speed the country is growing at with the gross domestic product, and a middle class that needs better products and services…is challenging,” said Rami Sharaf, CEO of RMA Cambodia, an international trade firm that brought brands such as Ford, Jaguar, Dairy Queen and Costa Coffee to Cambodia.
“With this growth, the pool of applicants and workers cannot keep up,” he said.
Mr. Sharaf said that Cambodia would struggle to compete within the Asean Economic Community, which is set to create a single market among the 10 Asean nations by 2015, if it does not take steps to make its workers more employable through high-quality education.
“We need to focus on the universities to help guide students and invest in applied sciences. What is needed here is to build the right task force within ministries…so we can have a proper roadmap to see what workers are needed. Currently, there is no proactive approach,” he said.
Sok Chenda, CDC secretary-general, said that the private sector also had a responsibility to ensure that workers are qualified.
“I’ve talked with the prime minister about this…. We take it very seriously. But education and vocational training is not a government affair alone,” Mr. Chenda said.
In response to Mr. McCarthy’s comment regarding the lack of qualified workers for Total, Mr. Chenda said there needs to be more confidence that jobs in the oil and gas sector will be available.
“How can we from the government side or parents from their side think about engineers yet…when, for example, we don’t have enough oil and gas to provide jobs in that sector. You need to show there is more confidence in that sector first,” he said.
Mr. Chenda also said the government is drafting a new investment law, which he would make sure includes a provision requiring investors to train their employees.
“Investors must provide proper training to do something for vocational training. We will add it to the new law,” he said.
Grant Knuckey, CEO of ANZ Royal bank, who moderated the panel discussion, said jobs in the banking sector have increased 20 percent in the past year, and to keep up, he is leading an initiative with the Association of Banks in Cambodia to train future bank staff.
“People are coming into the sector without vocational skills…financial analysis, risk analysis…. We aim to recreate an efficient body to provide fundamental-level training for entry-level bankers,” he said.
Gordon Peters, managing partner of Emerging Markets Consulting and another panelist at the discussion, said his company has been working with the ILO to conduct a regional study on employers’ views of their staff.
Mr. Peters said that a majority of employers said that recent college graduates were not equipped with the skills they needed for employment.
“Preliminary data in Cambodia show 20 to 30 percent of firms are reporting college graduates don’t have the necessary skills to meet their needs,” Mr. Peters said.