Mith Sotha is working night and day to find the $800 a year it costs to put himself and his sister through university.
Five times a week, he works as a flight attendant for Royal Air Cambodge. After touching down at Pochentong Airport he rushes off to class at the Faculty of Law and Economics, where he is in his fourth year out of six years of study in economics and finance.
Although he is sometimes forced to miss classes because his work schedule is so heavy, he is confident that his studies are going well, and that all his hard work will pay off.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mith Sotha is typical of a growing number of Cambodians who are working hard to improve job skills, frequently in their spare time. But while that is a welcome development to employers, it’s unclear whether the job market is big enough to put those new graduates to work. And multinational companies report that training still is inadequate in many cases to meet their needs.
Tim Walton, management consultant at the multinational firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, wrote in a paper in December that the private sector will be unable to absorb the number of graduates, which is expected to increase by 17.5 percent from 1997 to 2002, with the biggest growth in the agricultural sector.
“The population boom of the early 1980s is coming of age…and …the private sector will also struggle to create productive employment opportunities,” he wrote.
He said his company recruits seven out of about 150 graduates from the Institute of Management every year, and he estimates that the other 30 or 40 multinational corporations in Cambodia have hired 150 to 200 business graduates since 1996.
Walton said that only the top 10 to 15 percent of new graduates have the necessary potential to work with multinational companies. The rest have to fight for work with NGOs, local businesses and the government.
The number of positions that can be offered to graduates is limited by the size of the private sector, which in turn depends on investment levels that are only just beginning to recover from the violence of 1997. But Walton also said that schools need to better groom graduates on understanding the needs of international companies if they are to find work in the private sector.
He added that this could be achieved by closer cooperation between the private sector and universities through placement programs and more communication between teaching staff and business professionals.
Attempts to get an accurate picture of Cambodia’s job market are hampered by the fact that the government does not publish figures on graduate employment.
But Margaret Ryan, director of career placement at the Institute of Management, was optimistic about the opportunities for graduates. She estimates that since 1997 almost 70 percent of students graduating from her institution found work.
Ryan said students are gaining a growing awareness of the skills they need, and many are taking the initiative to seek extra classes in computer training and English.
“But there is still a lack of background and understanding of the private sector [among the students],” she conceded.
Hor Lat, chairman of the Association of Khmer Architects, said the Faculty of Architecture also suffers from poor educational standards. He is calling on the government to improve training of architecture graduates so that they can become more competitive with professionals from other Asean countries.
Chea Sarin, a young architectual consultant for the Urban Resources Center, a local NGO that trains young professionals in projects to help Phnom Penh’s urban poor, agrees. “Training for professionals has been substandard in Cambodia compared to those of foreign-trained architects,” he said, and pointed to the nation’s turbulent past and lack of technical resources as reasons why.
Some dissatisfied students, looking to develop their career prospects, are now beginning to seek further education abroad.
Roeun Socheat, a 21-year-old business administration student at the Faculty of Law and Economics, is hoping to win a scholarship to study for an MBA in the US next year because he believes that Cambodia cannot offer him the level of training he needs.
“I know it is very difficult to find a job because there is a shortage of companies ready to employ us. As everybody knows, we have gone through the Pol Pot regime and lost almost all our educated class, and we need these kinds of people to lead the economy.”
But despite these problems, NGOs report that the standard of graduates has improved.
Bill Herod, coordinator of the Cambodia Information Project at the NGO Forum, the umbrella group for NGOs, has been interviewing candidates for NGO positions for the past six years.
He said that in recent years, locally educated candidates are showing more initiative and resourcefulness than their older counterparts, many of whom received their education in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
“I am very impressed with their scholarship and language ability,” he said.
“Their level of English is remarkable.”