Cambodia is entering a new phase of economic growth in which the development of a skilled workforce will be critical to social stability and regional competitiveness, government officials and economists said Thursday at the 2014 Cambodia Outlook Conference.
Delivering the keynote speech at the conference, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that deep administrative reforms and an increased focus on education would be crucial to the country’s economic progress.
“Reform is a necessary and urgent task that has to be continued for both the present and future,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“In this mandate, fighting corruption must be bolstered in order to strengthen good governance and enhance the targeted provision of public services,” he told the audience at the InterContinental Hotel.
Mr. Hun Sen has habitually promised administrative reforms over his two decades as prime minister, yet Cambodia remains among the lowest ranked countries in global corruption and transparency indexes, and his party narrowly won the July election amid widespread unhappiness with his rule.
Mr. Hun Sen also said that training and job creation will be central to sustaining the country’s steady economic growth, which is predicted to remain above 7 percent this year.
“The improvement of education quality is a necessary task which must be done and is a crucial element for creating the competitiveness of Cambodian people in the future,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“Cambodia lacks skilled workers…at both the low and middle level,” he continued. “One main priority for the government in the next five years is to deal with the problems regarding the inconsistency or the professional gaps in what industry and business requires.”
Finally, Mr. Hen Sen told the audience that he would not allow youth to be used for political purposes, though he did not explain exactly what he meant.
“I would like to clarify that I will absolutely protect youths’ interests,” he said.
“I will not support activities that test the future of Cambodian youth…in order to achieve the political ambition of a small group of people.”
Economists and business leaders who took part in a series of panel discussions following the prime minister’s speech said that the transparent and efficient implementation of reform promises would be crucial to attracting investment and creating jobs.
“The key word is implementation,” said Faisal Ahmed, the Cambodia resident representative of the International Monetary Fund. “It is the quality of implementation that will determine the quality of domestic and foreign investment that will determine the quality of growth.”
Mr. Ahmed said that mid-term economic growth was all but guaranteed, but would come with greater challenges in meeting the expectations of the population.
“People want more than jobs. They want better jobs,” he said. “The political economy becomes more complicated during boom times.”
Vongsey Vissoth, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said that failure by the government to meet the employment needs of an expanding workforce would have a destabilizing effect on the country.
“Jobs for youth is a major priority,” Mr. Vissoth said. “If we don’t do it, it will…become a social and political problem.”
“It is easy for [youth] to be attracted by certain points of ideology,” he added.
Jayant Mennon, a senior Southeast Asia economist for the Asian Development Bank, said that the government’s anti-corruption efforts were inextricably linked to efforts to create better jobs.
“I would draw a direct link between corruption and growth and jobs,” Mr. Mennon said on the sidelines of the conference.
“All the other indicators flow out of this basic linkage between corruption, good governance and investment climate,” he said.
During a panel discussion on improving the skills of the workforce, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron outlined the various ways that the education system was failing to equip students for a global workforce.
While the country has reached almost universal enrollment in primary schools, only 27 percent of students are enrolled at the upper secondary level, Mr. Chuon Naron said.
“When people leave school before upper secondary they have low skills, therefore they have a low salary,” he said, adding that in rural areas there simply aren’t enough teachers.
“Teachers are paid $100 per month. This is a problem,” he said. “Teachers have two jobs. One is teaching and the other is making a living.”
“Taxation is a pillar of education. Without money, you cannot do much,” he added.
Mr. Chuon Naron said that the government also needs to address a skills mismatch in the workforce, as surveys of employers have repeatedly shown that graduates are not meeting the expectations of their prospective employers.
“Four percent [of university students] study agriculture in an agricultural economy,” he said to illustrate his point.
Martin McCarthy, the managing director of Total Cambodia, said that with so many university students receiving degrees in the fields of management and finance, it was nearly impossible to find qualified staff to work in the oil industry.
“2.5 percent of graduates coming out as engineers is horribly insufficient,” he said, adding that the poor quality of graduates required large investment in training new staff.
“When I recruit engineers, I know they will be utterly useless for the first two years,” he said. “We need someone who is teachable in order to [train them], and currently the education is just too low.”