In his friend’s hotel in Phnom Penh last year, David Symansky watched incredulously as a contractor shot a staple-gun through a live electrical wire.
“My guess is that if he had gone to a training program he wouldn’t have done that,” said Mr Symansky, recruitment manager at Human Resources Inc. “I don’t see many good technicians, but the economy needs them, and the jobs for them are there.”
In recent years, Mr Symansky said, his firm has been receiving more and more requests from companies here looking for highly trained, specialized workers. Although many firms say they would prefer to employ Cambodian nationals, they are often unable to find the skilled workers they need here and end up recruiting from countries like China and Korea.
“I don’t envy the government,” said Mr Symansky. “It’s a tough nut to crack.”
Forty-eight percent of all students currently enrolled in Cambodian universities are business majors, according to the information and statistics bureau of the Education Ministry’s higher education department.
Business majors are certainly needed in expanding sectors like microfinance and banking, but employers are also in dire need of skilled construction workers, garment workers, electricians, mechanics and farmers.
“While the economy always needs accountants, it needs less of them than there are accounting majors,” said Mr Symansky, adding that though the large-scale construction and farming projects springing up in Cambodia always require at least some finance specialists, they mostly need skilled manual workers.
But experts say that the education sector is still unable to provide such specialized workers even as new industries look to enter the Cambodian economy.
The reason for this, said Neou Seiha, senior researcher at the Economic Institute of Cambodia, is twofold. First, the quality and quantity of vocational schools here cannot meet the demands of the market. Second, secondary school graduates do not know enough about the job market to tailor their career decisions to labor market needs.
According to Chhom Chhun, training office manager at the Battambang Institute of Technology, a public institution under the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, BIT does not receive sufficient government funding to cover the costs of the expensive machinery that it needs to properly train its engineering students.
“If we don’t have the materials or equipment, we can’t teach the class,” said Mr Chhun, who has started to add more students willing to pay for their education just to keep programs afloat.
But attracting those paying students can be difficult. Despite a virtual job guarantee for graduates in construction and electrical engineering, Mr Chhun said that students tend to be put off by the connotations associated with hard work.
According to Stephen Paterson, advisor at the National University of Management and Vice Rector of International Affairs at the University of Puthisastra, students are often unaware that many jobs that require vocational training pay well and go beyond repetitive, menial labor.
He added that the National University of Management’s Production Management Program, which trains students for management level jobs in the garment sector that are currently largely held by foreigners, was only able to graduate eight students last year, despite offering financial incentives like scholarships and loans.
Students, said Mr Paterson in an e-mail, tend to perceive business programs as fast tracks to “greater financial success and also a higher social status,” adding: “there is some bias against vocational training.”
Ou Vathma, 20, a second-year student planning to major in mechanics at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, said that his choice of major was influenced by job market demand.
Though some consider a business degree more prestigious than technical majors, Mr Vathma said he expects that to change in the future, as technical skills become increasingly valuable in a changing economy.
“My major in the future will be the most popular in the job market,” he said, adding that the companies who currently recruit mechanics from the institute are often unable to find enough to fill their open positions.
Lim Visal, director of Camko Motors, brought Cambodia’s first car assembly shop to the country in mid-2009. But there are currently no vocational schools in the country that train students in car assembly, he said.
“It is very difficult to find employees right now,” said Mr Visal.
Mr Visal said that as more car companies follow Camko’s lead and begin assembling cars in Cambodia, he hopes that the country’s education sector will eventually catch up with the new demands of its industrial sector.
For the moment, he said, all the mechanics in supervising positions at Camko are foreigners from Korea and Thailand, adding that, for lower level positions, he hires from a limited supply of Cambodian auto mechanics with degrees from local vocational schools and trains them on the job.
According to Chanchal Singh, facility manager of Auto Sales Cambodia Limited, there are neither enough mechanics nor vocational schools in Cambodia to meet demand.
While his company, a certified Chevrolet dealer, requires its mechanics to have a vocational school degree, local garages have trained most mechanics in Cambodia, he said.
He added that three of his seven mechanics – all Cambodian nationals – received their training in Thailand.
Bun Phearin, director of the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, said Cambodia’s industrial development must go hand-in-hand with its development of its skilled work force.
“The way to develop the country compared to neighboring countries is through vocational training,” said Mr Phearin, noting that though there are now public vocational schools in each province, these schools need to be continually improved.
Though he admits most of the skilled technicians in Cambodia are currently foreigners, he hopes that that “will change bit by bit” as the government expands and promotes vocational training opportunities.
Hong Choeun, head of the national employment agency, said that his agency is trying to close the gap between the education sector and labor market by conducting a study, which will be made publicly available, on both the supply and demand sides of the labor market, in hopes of better aligning the two.