Dearth of Science, Tech Skills Threatens Growth

When 16-year-old Kea Piseth talks with his parents about his future, they offer up a common piece of advice.

“Parents like mine also encourage us to do accounting, because they know they are good-paying jobs,” he said. “Most of my friends think it’s very hard to find a job in science and technology too—they want to do accounting and become business people, or study law.”

Unlike many of his classmates at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh, however, Piseth has other ambitions. He wants to work in computing—he is hoping to attend the Cambodia Science & Engineering Festival come March—and he plans to pursue university studies in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

Those ambitions make him an attractive prospect and something of a rarity.

While experts say that Cambodia must enhance education and interest in STEM fields if it is to sustain economic growth and remain internationally competitive over the coming decades, few students have heeded the call.

“STEM skill is indispensable for the Cambodian economy to shift to value-added and innovative industries,” Hiroshi Suzuki, chief economist at the Business Research Institute for Cambodia, said via email.

“Cambodia now enjoys…foreign direct investment which is attracted by unskilled labor with lower labor costs, such as the garment sector,” he said. “However, it is the near future challenge for Cambodia to shift its industries to much more value-added.”

But the dearth of science and technology expertise in Cambodia remains an impediment to diversifying the country’s economy away from agriculture and manufacturing and toward more lucrative and competitive research and development fields, Mr. Suzuki added.

Attitudes, poor teaching quality and inadequate school materials were considered to be significant barriers to encouraging more students to take up higher study and careers in such disciplines, says a study released this month by Sothy Eng and Whitney Szmodis in the journal International Perspectives on Education and Society.

Entitled “STEM Learning Achievement Among Cambodian Middle School Students,” the research sampled 100 15-year-olds from around Cambodia and found that science and math were among the students’ least favored subjects.

“It is reasonable to assume that many parents and students do not see the value of science majors when exploring profitable and prestigious career options,” the study says.

“Cambodia has a long road ahead to improving education and creating a knowledge-based society on a competitive level with the rest of the world,” it concludes.

When such students move onto university, the belief lingers.

A report released by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute in 2014 found that more than 70 percent of college graduates specialize in business, finance, foreign languages and liberal arts, while fewer than 20 percent concentrated on STEM subjects.

Piseth said most of his friends planned to obtain degrees in accounting or law, as they know they are well-paid and believe STEM jobs are harder to find.

“Most of my friends think it’s very hard to find a job in science and technology too—they want to do accounting, and become business people or study law.”

David Ford, adviser to the chemistry department at The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), said the problem starts from a young age.

“Student perceptions of science are formed in high school and the curriculum does little to engage them; too theoretical and virtually no practical work,” Mr. Ford said.

“Also they get little accurate information about job prospects and many think that teaching is the only career after studying science.”

In reality, he said, about 40 percent of chemistry students at RUPP have found work in the food, pharmaceutical and consumer-testing industries—a figure that is almost certain to rise in the coming years.

The Education Ministry’s Education Strategic Plan 2014-2018 specifically addresses the need to improve how STEM subjects are taught.

“STEM education needs to be strengthened at both the primary and secondary levels,” said Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron. “We must train teachers in mathematics, science and laboratory skills—and make the teaching more exciting.”

Alongside reforms to bring curricula, teaching methodologies and learning resources into line with international standards, the minister highlighted programs to make STEM disciplines more appealing and accessible.

“We will encourage study clubs for STEM, organize science festivals and make learning material available on the Internet.”

The ministry’s vision corroborates the government’s Industrial Development Policy, launched last year, which aims to transform and modernize the country’s industrial structure from labor-intensive to skill-driven industries by 2025—partly through measures to attract private investment in these sectors.

Yet, for the few skill-driven industries already in Cambodia, finding both well-educated and experienced workers remains a big challenge, said Tep Rithivit, CEO at venture capital and investment consultancy firm Devenco.

“There is a clear lack of human resources here generally,” he said. “But even with ITC [Institute of Technology of Cambodia] graduates, it’s not necessarily the teacher quality—they also lack of experience.”

Cambodian businesses involved in research and development are still largely having to recruit experienced hires, including foreign staff, as they are unwilling to shoulder the burden of additional training, added Mr. Rithivit.

“Businesses also have to be responsible for on-the-job training, but can be disincentivized by the time and cost factor,” he said, adding that small- and medium-sized enterprises “can play an important role here in getting real hands-on experience.”

With Cambodia’s nascent integration in the Asean Economic Community, which enables a freer movement of certain kinds of skilled labor across members’ borders, reform to allow students to compete in international markets could not come sooner, said Nataly Rodionova, managing director at STEP IT Academy in Phnom Penh, a learning center specializing in I.T.

“If you look at Singapore or the Philippines, for example, they have more people in technology,” Ms. Rodionova said.

“There are going to be too many bankers and accountants here soon,” she added. “For any country, technology development is making a huge difference. Because technology gives access to global market, increases efficiency and supports innovation.”

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