As a recent university graduate with a degree in accounting, one might expect Sady Seang Saoly to be ideally placed to take advantage of Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy. Instead the 23-year-old from Kampot province is downbeat about his prospects two years after leaving university.
“I and many friends I graduated with still have no jobs. We are very worried,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s hard to see the situation changing…. I would emigrate, but I can’t afford to.”
With high expectations placed on the growing, but still slim, minority who attend college in Cambodia, the disappointment after graduation can be crushing.
“I only got close to a job one time, but they said afterwards they wanted a woman,” said Voan Sidean, 25, also a university graduate. “My friends get sad and depressed, but I try to stay positive.”
They are not alone in their frustrations.
Despite the Education Ministry citing a 37 percent rise in university graduates from approximately 8,000 in 2005 to around 11,000 last year, coupled with one of the most rapidly growing economies in Asia, high unemployment continues to plague young Cambodians.
Only about one in 10 recent university graduates were holding down a job, according to statistics in 2005 from the Youth Star NGO.
Between 1996 and 2006, the youth labor force in Cambodia grew by 78.7 percent from 1.29 million to 2.3 million, compared to 6 percent on average in Asean countries, according to the International Labor Organization’s 2007 “Asean Labor and Social Trends” report.
At the same time, the participation rate for youth in the Cambodian labor force fell from 71 percent to 66.5 percent.
Countries that experience both rapid youth labor force growth and high levels of poverty face a “daunting” youth employment challenge, according to the Asean Labor report.
Ros An, deputy director for information and statistics at the Ministry of Education, suggested that one way to avoid social problems resulting from youth unemployment was to open more private universities.
“If young people are able to go to a university, they won’t have time to create any social problems,” he said.
Vannby Hem, program manager at the Asia Development Bank’s Cambodia office, said that more universities won’t help if they are not producing graduates that meet the needs of the labor market. He suggested that greater coordination between the government and universities and more study of market needs would improve the situation.
“Economic growth in the last few years has been driven mainly by growth in the garment, construction and agricultural sectors, which don’t necessarily employ a lot of university graduates,” Hem said.
More vocational training could be important, particularly if the manufacturing and service industries continued to expand, he added.
The large amount of unemployment is due, at least in part, to too many young people studying only for top-management positions, according to Hoeung Sophon, director of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training’s Labor Market Information Department.
“All the students just want to be government officials, and no one seems to want to be a farmer or a worker,” he said.
Sandra D’Amico, managing director of human resources and recruiting agency Hr Inc, said that despite the large number of graduates, many are unprepared for the rigors of the business world.
“There remains a mismatch between the education provided at university versus what employers need,” she said.
One major problem is the emphasis on rote learning at Cambodian universities, D’Amico said, when critical thinking skills are needed to learn quickly on the job. Another is that universities offer students little in the way of career guidance.
“Where do you start looking for a job if you don’t know how to make a CV?” D’Amico asked.
Royal University of Phnom Penh Rector Lao Chhiv Iev said his school was trying to address the graduate unemployment issue.
“Students can drop their CVs at an employment office here,” he said. “I believe Cambodian students today are much cleverer than my generation…. They have more skills, but we have started everything from zero, so we are not ready yet to provide graduates equal [services] to those in developed countries.”
Chiv You Meng, president of the Khmer Youth Association, said the government was implementing a national program focusing on creating job opportunities, but it would take time before its effects were seen on the ground. He added that greater emphasis must be placed on developing entrepreneurial skills.
“There are no institutions in Cambodia to help provide ideas on self-employment,” Chiv You Meng said.
Some observers warned that if Cambodia cannot create enough jobs to support predicted growth in the pool of young workers, an explosion of social problems, such as drug abuse, could result.
“Too much time doing nothing and low self-esteem is a bad combination,” Chiv You Meng said.
But Vannby Hem of the ADB said the future might not necessarily be bleak.
“If economic growth continues at the current rate, there will be more employment and the jobs will be more diverse,” he said.
Tep Rothanak, 21, currently a second-year English literature student, is concerned about what lies ahead for him. “I have applied for many jobs to help me get through university, but it is difficult,” he said.
But even if English teaching doesn’t work out, Tep Rothanak isn’t despairing.
“If I can’t do that I’d like to start a business-maybe selling books would be good.”
(Additional reporting by Erika Kinetz)
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