Cambodia has enjoyed robust economic growth for more than 15 years – but each of its primary industries is expected to see more moderate growth this year and the next.
There are multiple reasons for the slowdown, many of which are not immediately addressable: garment and textiles exports will likely slow with the withdrawal of the Everything but Arms (EBA) agreement with Europe; the tourism sector may stagnate as global economies slow down; the agriculture sector is being impacted by persistently unpredictable weather.
But in a time of uncertainty for Cambodia’s long-term economic future, there is one answer that members of the private and public sectors continue to return to: addressing the skills gap in the Kingdom.
The lack of skilled labour in Cambodia has been discussed for years – but it has become especially pressing in the new digital age, which could soon see many unskilled labourers losing their jobs in the coming years.
In mid-2018, Cambodia’s National Employment Agency (NEA) conducted a study regarding Cambodia’s skills gap problem. Of the more than 600 businesses and establishments sampled, nearly half said they had trouble finding employees, and one-fourth said they experienced significant skills shortages. All said the main issue was not a lack of applicants, but rather a lack of applicants skilled enough to do the job.
The sectors most affected by a lack of hires were hospitality, health, technology, education, insurance and finance. On the positive side, these sectors have also all been growing: altogether, more than 20,000 jobs are likely to be created annually by these industries through 2020. But as jobs are created rapidly, so too must locals be trained to fill them – lest locally-operating companies begin hiring non-Cambodians to fill these roles.
But, to Cambodia’s benefit, many in the private sector say they aren’t put off by the skills gap: though it may be a challenge, it is one that an increasing number of businesses are willing to address internally.
“The skills gap is easy to overcome – it’s just training and perseverance”
“The skills gap is easy to overcome, it’s just training and perseverance,” said Jason Friedman, managing director of hospitality group JM Friedman, which operates multiple hotels in the Kingdom. Hiring locally and training new recruits has become the norm for Friedman’s business, he said; though the initial costs are higher, he acknowledged, hiring locally ensures a committed, long term workforce that outsourcing does not. “If you train [local hires], they are more likely to stay…. If your [employees] have the passion and drive, the skills gap isn’t a problem.”
Passion and drive are key when it comes to hiring in a market that lacks “hard” skills, or the teachable skills that can be defined and measured. Many private companies have turned toward hiring on the basis of “soft” skills, or positive personal attributes like friendliness and a strong work ethic, with the understanding that their hires will require additional training.
According to the NEA report, young Cambodians typically lack foreign language, customer service, teamwork, problem-solving, technological and specialised skills. But the youthful population is rich with a can-do spirit that has proven especially important for companies like Soma Group, which relies on a predominantly Khmer workforce 2,500 employees strong.
Soma Group CEO Cham Krasna explained that the company – which has business across several industries including agriculture, technology, construction, hospitality, trading, energy and media sectors – is in the process of establishing an internal “Soma Academy” to help train current employees as well as new hires.
“We want to establish this academy to ensure that the skills gap is much closer than before, and everyone will be able to do their work more efficiently than before, from marketing to communications to specific technical know-how,” Krasna said. “Such a simple thing as learning Excel and PowerPoint, learning English, and gaining experience in management – I have a huge list of programmes we’ve been brainstorming to establish our training academy.”
She added that, until the academy is up and running later this year, a more informal version of skills sharing has been implemented at Soma Group: a “brown bag” initiative that encourages employees to informally mentor one another and share helpful expertise during their lunch breaks.
Other companies are adopting similar tactics to improve the skill sets of their employees, especially those in the information technology (IT) sector, where there remains a staggeringly high demand for advanced operators and software developers. Local mobile payment provider Pi Pay, for example, has adopted an in-house training programme designed to bring new staff up to speed with the IT requirements of their new roles, whether they be in marketing, accounting or HR.
“Learning on the job, by experience and with colleagues, is the most effective way of ensuring agility and adaptiveness in a team,” said Tomas Pokorny, Pi Pay CEO, adding that the company’s most skilled employees are encouraged to mentor young Cambodians in the community. “Some [of our employees] have also signed up as mentors at [local incubator] Impact Hub Phnom Penh, to help coach young Cambodian entrepreneurs.”
Cambodia’s young workforce is desperately in need of mentorship, explained Seng Sopheap, the president of the National Institute of Posts, Telecoms and ICT (NIPTICT), and incubators like Impact Hub have done well in this matter – but these small-scale initiatives can only reach so many people.
“One of the assets for Cambodia is that our workers are very young, and we are very fast learners”
“People complain about a lack of soft and hard skills, and at NIPTICT, we are focusing on mentorship and training to address this issue,” he said. “We train around 1,500 government staff each year on IT skills, and teach them what the impact of this tech can be on their job and on society… this is very practical now, especially, because soon, technology could change all of our lives.”
A key aspect of preparing for the trend of digitisation that is sweeping across the globe, he added, is funding for research groups at the college level. With funding from NIPTICT, multiple universities have begun years-long research projects into technologies that have the potential to change the landscape of the Kingdom, including robotics, language processing and telecommunications tools.
He added that, in a digitising world, it will be important to teach skills that machines cannot master, like creative thinking, problem-solving and negotiating.
“One of the assets for Cambodia is that our workers are very young, and I believe we are very fast learners,” Sopheap said. “For example, in the garment and textiles industry, a lot of jobs will be lost but new jobs are going to be created when we bring in new machines that require upkeep… we just need to be sure that people learn how to operate these machines.”
“”It’s inevitable that change is coming,” he added. “But I think, in Cambodia, there is hope.”