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Shortage of Skilled Jobs Puts Push For a Better Life on Hold

Ros Sovann was supposed to be elite.

He was heavily recruited out of university and after graduating in June 1997 walked into his first job as a manager with a multinational oil company. But in May, frustrated over receiving the same wage in a job he considered unchallenging, he quit.

“I always thought, according to my education and background, I could take more responsibility,” Ros Sovann said recently. “I thought I could easily find a job with more responsibility and more salary.”

He was wrong. Since May, resumes have gone out and never come back. Only this week did this shining star have his first interview.

“I never thought it would be very difficult to find a job,” he said.

Ros Sovann is one of many well-prepared university graduates entering a job market that has, for the last year-and-a-half, fewer and fewer of the jobs they want. Political instability in the last year-and-a-half and the regional economic crisis have pushed thousands of workers out of skilled, well-paid jobs to compete with these inexperienced graduates who are hungry to showcase their skills.

Many employers say this glut of skilled labor, coupled with the lack of available skill positions, makes this the toughest job market this decade.

Being stuck in a bad job is one thing—there is, after all, always low-wage work in government. But keeping these better-trained workers on the sidelines endangers Cambodia’s chances of building up a better-off class of citizens, said employers, government officials and experts. People who were already making more than just enough to get by and saving some money are again disappearing, and the young who could begin to build up their lives are stuck with few opportunities to do so.

“People affected by this economy who are going to school may just wonder what the point is in going if they can’t find a job,” said Martin Godfrey of the Cambodia Develop­ment Resource Institute.

The director of Save the Children UK, Brian Smith, who has been interviewing candidates recently, said there are not enough jobs for young, qualified people.

“Tomorrow’s leaders are just being stymied,” Smith said.

An already crowded job market was injected with skilled workers after factional fighting in July 1997. Statistics vary widely, but a Finance Ministry report in August 1997 said anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 jobs had been lost after the fighting.

International organizations and NGOs initially shed at least 1,200 jobs but have begun hiring again, according to organization directors and a CDRI study. Private industry jobs dipped twice: once in July 1997 and then again during the election as employers put new hires on hold, said Tim Walton, manager of Human Resource Advisory Services for PricewaterhouseCoopers who recruits workers for many of the multinational companies in the country.

According to a Labor Force Survey by the National Institute of Statistics, the private industry and government changed places by the end of 1997 in terms of who employed more people in Phnom Penh. In the first part of 1997, the private sector employed 51 percent of the city and the government 47 percent, according to the survey. By the end of the year, the government employed 54 percent of the country and the private sector 45 percent, the survey said.

Tourism took the worst hit. Tourism Min­istry Director General So Mara said more than 20 small hotels shut down since July 1997 and more than 30 travel agencies have closed over the same period. Staff at some of the biggest hotels were halved; many who kept their jobs were forced into pay cuts, he said.

“Tourism allowed people to get into the city and have a good job,” So Mara said. “At the same time, these people would then consume products made in the countryside…. When we killed these jobs we hurt all kinds of businesses.”

Smith of Save The Children UK said he was stunned at the CVs he received for a $230-a-month office assistant post. Among the applicants were those spat out by private industry—hotel managers who had been jobless for six months and bank employees recently let go. Many were making anywhere from $300 to $400 a month in their old jobs, but now just wanted catch on.

Smith’s descriptions of today’s job-seekers he saw put them in two categories: the experienced and the new adventurers. The first are a mix of students with relatively top-flight educations or workers with several years experience. The second are people who wouldn’t usually enter into the job market—many of them mothers or young women—who are now seeking a job out of necessity.

One of these new adventurers is Soth Srey, a maid and mother of three whose husband is unemployed. Her application for the Save the Children post was her first venture into the job market.

“I want to have development—I can’t be a cleaner forever,” said Soth Srey, who de­scribed herself as having fair English skills, computer literate and able to operate a fax machine, telephone and photocopier.

“I work so hard,” Soth Srey said. “All I want is a chance.”

But first-time applicants are getting passed over more often today because there are better candidates, employers said. In the early ’90s, NGOs and private businesses took chances on people with substandard English and skills they picked up in the border camps, said Carol Strickler, executive director of the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia.

While employers from the UN Devel­op­ment Program to PricewaterhouseCoopers said there is a lack of skilled employees, there are now more people with specific skills to fill posts. The Save the Children post Soth Srey applied for, for example, was filled by a woman with excellent references and past experience as an office assistant, Smith said.

“Back in 1993, you could come back from the border camps with some skills and a little English—people would hire you for many types of jobs,” Strickler said. “But now there is a range of quality employees. There is more available [talent now] than what there was in the past.”

Employers now often look for experience, said Tan Visal, staff development coordinator with the CARE, an international NGO.

“Now businesses are asking for five or even 10 years of experience,” Tan Visal said. “The difference between 1993 and now is experience. In the next few years [employers] will think of experience and knowledge.”

And instead of gaining experience, young employees often find themselves competing for jobs against older counterparts who may be less-educated but have more experience, employers said.

“I’m worried about these students,” said Tan Visal. “The job market cannot provide for them.”

Smith from Save the Children said: “This new generation, they’re ambitious, they want more out of life. If they don’t find outlets they’re going to become angry and disillusioned. They’ll resort to doing anything but developing the country.”

Employees are seeking experience anywhere they can get it. Uth Virak’s and Ok Chen Kim Choeun found an oasis between joblessness and working in the field they like by working in sales at Indochine Insurance.

“It’s difficult to find a job because the country only has a lot of jobs in agriculture,” said Ok Chen Kim Choeun, a 31-year-old doctor who left his government post and now makes about $350 a month including commission.

“I liked my job, but I wanted to improve my knowledge,” Ok Chen Kim Choeun said. “And the salary was small with the government. In the future, if the salary improves, I can change back to my government job.”

Uth Virak, 25, works part-time at Indochine while studying to be an English teacher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh—a field he studies more to learn English than to teach, he said.

“If I want to get a job that is a career, the best choice is to study English,” said Uth Virak, adding he also likes the job at Indochine because he can meet foreigners—another key in landing a job. Like many students, Uth Virak plans to get another degree after this one.

Both workers said they have seen many of their friends who can’t find jobs. Uth Virak, however, is not worried about his future. “I can always get a job if I want,” he said.

That’s what Ros Sovann thought. In June 1997, he had earned a coveted bachelors of business administration from the University of Law and Economics, spoke English and French and was getting offers from several business. He described that first job, though, as more of a messenger’s position than a manager’s: he was responsible for six gas stations, but his main duty was to check what gas was needed, pick up money and report back.

While studying to be an English teacher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh—a field he studies more to learn English than to teach, he said.

“If I want to get a job that is a career, the best choice is to study English,” said Uth Virak, adding he also likes the job at Indo­chine because he can meet foreigners—another key in landing a job. Like many students, Uth Virak plans to get another degree after this one.

Both workers said they have seen many of their friends who can’t find jobs. Uth Virak, however, is not worried about his future. “I can always get a job if I want,” he said.

That’s what Ros Sovann thought. In June 1997, he had earned a coveted bachelors of business administration from the University of Law and Economics, spoke English and French and was getting offers from several businesses. He described that first job, though, as more of a messenger’s position than a manager’s. He was responsible for six gas stations, but his main duty was to check what gas was needed, pick up money and then report back.

“A gas station employee could have done that,” Ros Sovann said. “Why did they ask me to do this job? There’s no responsibility in this case.”

But Ros Sovann was ill-prepared for the post-July 1997 job market. One potential job at another multinational company evaporated because the employer wanted to wait until the new government was formed to hire someone. Ros Sovann made several trips to the recruiters at PricewaterhouseCoopers and received additional education in international business. Still nothing.

“It’s very hard,” he said. “I can’t buy what I want. I live with my [parents]—they both work and also have to support my sister. When I went back to school, I had to use money from them.”

A job interview this week with another multinational came just in time. Ros Sovann has also been offered a job with the Ministry of Education, comparing other countries’ educational systems. He doesn’t want to take it, but he may have no choice.

There was no word at press time if he had gotten the post with the multinational.

“I don’t want the government job—it seems boring,” he said. “I don’t want to use my qualifications that way. I can tell you how to increase sales. I can create strategies to attract customers. Those are my qualifications. That’s how I want to use my qualifications.”

Ros So­vann’s job interview has provided some hope, and the drought for Cambodia’s newly skilled workers may be relenting—slightly. Walton of PricewaterhouseCoopers said new inquiries from businesses who put off projects during the election standoff will be coming. The marketing and sales jobs that were non­existent three months ago are creeping back today.

Several NGOs and international organizations said they will be starting new projects soon, although Strickler from the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia said other groups’ funding may taper off.

And tourism jobs could remain grounded for another year, So Mara admitted. This could keep skilled-workers from finding good-paying jobs, he said.

There is, however, a good mine out there for experienced and highly- skilled workers in specific fields. Wal­ton said the top acc­ountants, technicians and those who can manage sales and marketing de­part­ments are al­ready getting $700 to $1,000 a month. New businesses are be­ginning to come into the country, and sal­aries for these workers are only going to get higher, he said.

In the financial sector, he said, there are Faculty of Business graduates who two years ago were getting $200 a month who are now in positions paying $500 and $600 a month, Walton said.

But as Cambo-dia’s job market has changed since the early ’90s, job-seekers must change with it. Walton said too often young employees start “job-hopping,” spending six months at one job and then, out of a desire to add another job to their resume or diversify their skills, move to another field. In the new market, it will be better to focus on one area of expertise and build on it.

“If you want to develop a career, you need to go to one place and develop your expertise, not broaden your experience,” Walton said.

 

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