2nd Higher Education Forum: EU-Cambodia Higher-Education Policy and Cooperation, held at the National Institute for Education Phnom Penh.  
“Employability and Graduate Skills – Comparisons of the past and present, and the impact of an emerging economy.” 

Delivered by: Adrian Low, Managing Partner HRINC, representing EuroCham HR Committee

Date: 7th May 2015 

My name is Adrian Low. Today I represent the EuroCham Cambodia HR Committee. It is an honour to be asked to speak at this forum. I am here to share some thoughts, ideas and recommendations on how to improve the employability and skills of graduates. My presentation will also cover a comparison of the past and present, while also considering the impact of an emerging economy. 

One of the key recommendations that The EuroCham HR committee has continued to deliver, is that reforms need to be implemented, especially in higher education, to ensure graduates are qualified not only in the hard skills, but also the soft skills necessary for employment. We encourage policy dialogue towards better alignment between higher education curricula, graduate skills, and labour market needs. 

There is no question that we have challenges related to education, but our challenges in education must be seen in the context of Cambodia’s history and development. 

Today I would like to be positive, but also realistic about the current situation by comparing our current situation with the options available in the year 2000. I will also make recommendations about how higher education providers can assist with the transition from student to employee. 

The rebuilding of higher education 

In 2000, if someone asked me to find them a University Graduate with 5 years’ experience, they didn’t exist. Many of the people I speak to today, particularly those new to Cambodia, are unaware that it wasn’t until around the year 2000 that universities actually produced any significant number of graduates. 

Not only few graduates, but serious challenges of finding lecturers – year 2000

As you could image, in the early years of rebuilding the higher education system, it was a serious challenge finding high quality, experienced local lecturers. In the year 2000 universities in Cambodia were only just starting to make an impact with supplying higher education. With very few experienced and qualified lecturers, it was difficult to staff these new universities. 

Example: I employed an individual that had finished his bachelor degree, progressed straight to his MBA, then the month after completing his MBA at the age of 23, he became a lecturer for the MBA course at his university. At that stage his exposure to the corporate environment was little more than assisting with administration and translation. The higher education system was in the early stages of rebuilding, and there is no doubt that the lack of qualified, experienced teaches had an impact on the quality of education. He was probably the best qualified person available to teach with a growing demand for university education. Today we have a far greater number of experienced and qualified teachers. Progress has certainly been made, though the challenge of finding, training and retaining quality faculty remains. There must be a focus on the continued development and training of teachers to ensure students get the highest quality education possible.  

Exponential growth in graduate numbers

Since 2000, the number of university graduates has increased exponentially. Not just the total number of graduates, but the number of graduates each year is increasing significantly and in some areas to point of over-supply. The number of universities, the variety of options available to students is now 10 fold. We now have university graduates with 20 years of experience. We now have 20 years’ worth of graduates in the market. These are luxuries that the companies operating in the year 2000 did not have. As mentioned previously, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made to meet international standards, but let us be thankful for those that lead the way, however challenging it was. 

What is a value of a degree to employers? 

Although this is an area that is improving, the feedback from employers is that a university degree in Cambodia has been of little value in understanding the skills and abilities of graduates. It is to say, that just because you have a degree, it doesn’t mean that you have reached a minimum standard expected by employers. This will vary from institution to institution, though it is the general perception from market.

Let me be clear - Employers are not saying that the university education has no value. This is demonstrated by the fact that very few businesses are accepting high school graduates as an alternative to university graduates for professional positions. This demonstrates to me that there is clearly benefits of attending university. Almost every position that comes through our recruitment agency requires university qualifications as a minimum, including basic customer service and admin roles. Universities do increase employment opportunities for their students. 

Finding and attracting the best graduates – quality, quantity or economic reality

I struggle to find good graduates: Another common comment from employers. This is a result of more than just the education system, it is also an issue related to the realities of the rapid growth in the economy. The good companies are finding good graduates and the good graduates are finding the good companies.

The Cambodian economy has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last decade. Between 2011 and 2014 Cambodia the number of people employed rose 23.5%. In construction it rose by around 40%, finance and insurance employment rose approx. 38% (National Employment Agency, 2015). With that sort of growth you can expect shortages of talent at all levels, no matter what the quality of the education system is like. With the forces of supply and demand in a growing market, there will always be companies that struggle to attract the best and brightest. In the context of graduate employability, employers also need to look at their own organisations, and their work environment to ask themselves “what can I do to attract the best graduates”. 

There are many excellent, motivated graduates. Far more than there were in the past. Organisations need to have a plan on how to attract the quality graduates.

There are many countries in the world that are not suffering from skills shortages, simply because their economies are performing poorly. Not being able to find enough skilled people to supply the huge demand is a problem many countries would like to have right now. So we will be positive today and be grateful for the growth of the Cambodian economy, and the opportunities that growth presents to both graduates and businesses. 

Real world experience – What is it? How do you get it?

Another common comment from many employers, is that university does not prepare the students for the “real world”. This is an issue that is not just repeated here in Cambodia. Employers all across the world have the same issue. Although a universal problem, it is an area that particularly needs addressing by higher education providers in developing countries. 

In a recent study completed by the National Employment Agency stated that the most competencies most lacking in higher education graduates / first time job seekers were 1. Lack of working world / life experience 2. Technical or jobs specific skills 3. Poor attitude / motivation 4. Foreign language skills 5. Communication skills. Four out of the five factors are not related to field of study, but other competencies required to be effective in the workplace.

I would now like to discuss a vital factor affecting the employability of graduates and the transition from student to employee. It is not just the knowledge that students require. It is exposure. 

Exposure. I am talking about exposure to workplace realities / exposure to international standards. 

If a student has come from rural area and their exposure to business is the small family shops and restaurants, family owned farming, and rural small business, it makes it difficult to grasp and apply the big picture business concepts, or understand the corporate work environment. If these students do not receive sufficient exposure to workplace realities, when they enter the workforce, they can be overwhelmed by how to speak, act, deal with problems, deal with customers, company politics etc. Many of the problems affecting the successful transition from student to employee are often less about the education and more about their exposure to workplace practices. 

Today’s graduates have a more opportunity for exposure to international standards than those I dealt with in the year 2000. 

What types of exposure are needed / available

What types of exposure increase a graduate’s employability? And how does the current situation compare with the year 2000. 

  • Students need Exposure to examples of best practice. Today, there are many more multi-nationals in the market, which over time have employed vast numbers of local people, giving them exposure to international best practice. Many of these employees have gone on to start their own businesses, and have created quality local businesses operating far more professionally than their counterparts in 2000. Businesses that we are all exposed to every day here in Phnom Penh.
  • Students and young employees need Exposure to quality local managers / coaches / mentors. As mentioned previously. In the year 2000, there were very few people over the age of 25 with university education. This meant that there were very few experienced middle management for new employees to learn from.
  • Exposure to family members with University education and professional experience (example of individual being the first from his village to get a university education).
  • Exposure to international social practices and expectations in the workplace. The workplace culture has slowly changed over the years. Two hour lunches are rare, Saturday work is becoming less common, management styles are changing, the style of dress is changing, and social expectations are changing. Socially, the workplace is very different from the usual social circles of friends, family and school.
  • Students need Exposure to career advice, job market information. Although today’s students have far greater access to information through internet and smart phones, educators and industry still need to provide accurate and relevant career advice and market information to help students make the best choices when considering study options.
  • Exposure to the realities of starting a career (just because you studied management doesn't mean your first job will be as a manager).   

Increased exposure to these things through the higher education process will help in the transition from student to employee. Higher education providers must work to include as much exposure as possible through the education process, to assist with both the learning process and integration in to the workforce. 

Once again, we need to see these improvements in the context of Cambodia’s history and development. There has been significant progress made, though more still has to be done. The opportunity for exposure the graduates of 2015 are receiving is far above the level in the year 2000, and it is improving every year, particularly in Phnom Penh and other larger cities. 

International exposure

Not only has the exposure to international standard business improved in Cambodia, there is an increasing number of students that choose to study and work overseas, and return to Cambodia with valuable experience. 

It is amazing the difference we see in those Cambodian people who study or work overseas, and then return to Cambodia. Their perspective is different. They did not become smarter. The education they may receive may have been of high quality, but it is the exposure to different, quality environments that can have the biggest impact. 

What can Higher Education Providers do to help improve the employability of graduates?

How can Higher Education Providers assist with exposing their graduates to the realities of the workplace? 

  1. Before students have enrolled, provide job market data and information on future trends for industries and positions. This could assist with encouraging more people to study in the areas of growth such as engineering, ITC and other technical roles, providing greater career prospects for the student while also meeting the needs of industry.
  2. Foster relations with industry. Industry and educators must work together to ensure there is alignment between curriculum and the needs of industry, to ensure what they are studying is relevant to the workplace.
  3. Balance your academic faculty with those that have current or recent relevant practical industry experience.
  4. Get your faculties to make links with companies who can give exposure to young people. To experience the world of work, to do an internship, Increase workplace visits, work experience placements. This exposure is invaluable to the students and their development.
  5. Encourage part-time work, full-time work or internships. Those students that have worked through their studies are better able to apply their knowledge to a familiar environment, thus improving the learning process, while also exposing students to the workplace, assisting the transition to professional employee.
  6. Develop student programs that help the transition from student to employee. Provide career information about the simple workplace issues, and addressing some of the soft skills essential for the workplace.
  7. Universities could explore the opportunities of delivering more certificate and diploma level training that focuses on practical skills and implementation. These practical diplomas can bridge the gap between theory and practice and be more appropriately delivered for the needs of specific industries. There has been significant research and focus on TVET training at all levels of industry and government. There is great need for more practical training programs, perhaps an opportunity for Higher Education providers.

I am by no means an expert on Higher Education reform but it appears that there are many practical opportunities to pursue that can deliver real results in addressing challenges faced by those entering the workforce. There are many programs that are currently in place, though more has to be done. 

To close my presentation today, I would like to celebrate the progress that the Higher Education Providers in Cambodia have made. I would like to thank all of the higher education providers assisting in the development of Cambodia’s future industry leaders. 

There is still much to be done. There is still a lot of opportunity for cooperation by both industry and the education providers, but today, let us also be thankful for the progress that has been made.