Companies find business degrees do not ready students for workplace
Inside the classroom of a Cambodian business school several years ago, Joanne Clifford asked her students to each write an essay about where they would go on vacation if they had an unlimited amount of money and time. She didn’t expect that the entire class would hand back essays on their imaginary holidays to the coastal town of Preah Sihanouk City.
“It never occurred to them that they could use the Internet, books or other resources to come up with different places to go,” said Ms Clifford, who taught business in Phnom Penh until 2004.
Now the CEO and creative director of Cade Advertising in Phnom Penh, Ms Clifford said little in the way of student creativity has changed as she finds it difficult to find applicants for positions at her firm with the ability to “think outside the box.”
Out of 100 applicants for a junior design position at Cade, Ms Clifford said she is lucky to find even one suitable applicant.
Forty-eight percent of all the students currently enrolled in Cambodian universities are studying business, making it the most popular major in Cambodia, according to Chhun Sophear, an official at the information and statistics bureau of the Ministry of Education’s higher education department.
But despite the large number of business school graduates flooding the job market, for many employers, filling empty desks is a surprisingly daunting challenge.
According to employers, most of the new graduates they find nervously
sitting opposite them in interviews are sorely lacking in key qualities such as critical thinking and practical skills in foreign languages and computers.
Experts say that these attributes are not encouraged enough in cavernous lecture halls where hundreds of students copy notes on business theory from PowerPoint presentations.
Stephen Paterson is the vice rector of international affairs at the University of Puthisastra, where business is one of the top majors, and an adviser at the National University of Management, where almost all the students are studying business administration. Mr Paterson thinks the educational system could do a better job of equipping students for the world of local business.
Schools in Cambodia tend to emphasize “rote learning and memorization,” he said. “Students are not used to participating and thinking for themselves.”
Mr Paterson said that universities could encourage skills like critical thinking and analysis by transitioning from lecture-style classes to discussion-based seminars. He also said that asking students to review and answer questions on actual business scenarios would also help them adapt better to the marketplace.
He added that some universities simply have too many students and too few resources to offer enough extra-curricular activities, such as debate sessions. The result is that students often lack valuable skills like leadership, public speaking, and teamwork.
According to “Youth and Employment: Bridging the Gap,” a 2008 report by the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, only 13 percent of employers here “believe that graduates have all or most of the skills they need for work.”
Mr Sophear of the Ministry of Education said his department did routine checks on the quality of university education in Cambodia.
“In order to maintain the standard of education in the business major, we check class sizes for overcrowding, as we assess how well teachers are teaching,” Mr Sophear said. “If we find any mistakes, we advise them how to change to do better.”
For Christophe Forsinetti, vice president of Devenco, a private equity and consultancy firm, finding critical thinkers in the workplace who are willing to pitch their own ideas and suggestions is a persistent challenge.
“We want people who will take initiative, rather than waiting for their boss to tell them what to do,” said Mr Forsinetti, adding that, too often, business school graduates have been trained to mechanically complete each assigned project and wait for the next one to be delivered to their desk.
Many employers say that they consider it more important that a job applicant comes with problem-solving skills rather than an actual university degree in business. Many students can be taught the more technical aspects of the profession while on the job, they say.
“Give me someone who’s smart, energetic, and who has a little bit of common sense, and I’d choose them any day over someone with just pieces of paper behind their name,” said Stephen Higgins, CEO of ANZ Royal Bank, adding that the hard-to-come-by applicant with strong critical thinking skills is often more desired for a position at ANZ than a candidate with a business degree but no flexibility or imagination.
Chy Sila, co-director of CBM Corp, which owns popular local food chains like BBWorld, said that much of what is taught in business schools is theoretical and inapplicable to the jobs students go on to apply for afterward.
At CBM Corp, applicants for management positions are often hired for having practical, relevant experience as opposed to just management degrees, he said.
“Many students don’t really have the practical or specific skill sets that the companies need,” said David Symansky, recruitment manager at Human Resources Inc, where roughly half of all job seekers on their books hold some sort of business degree.
Mr Symansky said that business school graduates with foreign language skills are particularly attractive to the scores of foreign companies setting up shop in Cambodia. He added that many multinational companies, which conduct most of their business through e-mail, have a specific interest in hiring students with strong written language skills.
“College doesn’t teach you everything,” he said.