Disassembling and repairing gas engines, electrical systems and air conditioning units, Or Lyhorng has spent the last year and a half working on and learning about automobiles.
A second-year student at JVC Technical School, the 24-year-old studies five days a week for seven and a half hours a day, preparing for his future job as a mechanic. After graduating, he plans on working in a repair shop for several years to gain more experience and later become his own boss.
“I hope after I graduate I will get a good job,” he said Thursday at JVC’s new campus in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district. “I’m going to open my own garage.”
Or Lyhorng represents what government officials and organizations have said the country needs more of: young Cambodians learning a practical trade through vocational courses.
Speaking Monday at the opening of the annual education summit hosted by the Ministry of Education, Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An called for a greater emphasis on vocational training.
“The important thing is we all focus on vocational training and more career training for students,” she said.
But such a shift in educational stance runs counter to the dominant attitudes among students, who consider a university degree a symbol of status and a ticket to affluence. And although the government has touted vocational training, no clear plan for developing the sector has emerged.
“It’s looked down upon,” said Sandra D’Amico with the human resource and recruiting agency HR Inc. “The prevailing thinking is [that] if I go to university I will get a good job.”
D’Amico said vocational training is often associated with manual labor and low-status positions, when most people want cushy jobs in air-conditioned offices. She stressed, however, that vocational training goes beyond car repair and plumbing, touching upon customer service and information technology as well.
Most importantly, she added, the courses impart a practical skill instead of just general or theoretical knowledge.
“What employers want are skills when people come out of universities,” she said Wednesday by telephone. “And that is not always done.”
Hailing from Kompong Cham province, Or Lyhorng said some of his friends question his decision to follow vocational courses rather than attend an academic university. He, however, is happy with his decision.
“I tell them it is my ambition,” he said, adding vocational training is shorter and less expensive than university study programs.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government plans on training one million students in a specific vocational skill, as well as providing some of them with a small packet of funding, though he did not know how much.
“The new government policy is to encourage vocational training because we want them to have specific skills for the market’s needs,” he said Thursday.
Nop Thim, vice director for the JVC school, said the center has experienced no problems in finding youths wanting to learn a trade.
Six months ago the school recently expanded to a new campus, adding more classrooms, offices and dormitory space for students. Enrollment also jumped from 100 to 150. “Next year, maybe 200,” Nop Thim joked.
Students from Phnom Penh, however, are lacking. He estimated about 10 percent of his pupils came from the capital whereas the rest came from rural and impoverished areas.
“The richer students don’t want to do hard work,” he said.