As urban areas expand, more and more Cambodians are moving to the country’s cities in search of a better life. Over three-quarters of these migrants flood into Phnom Penh, the premier destination for rural-to-urban migration, with one main thing in common – they’re looking for work.
Reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) point out that these migrants are overwhelmingly young people aged just 20 to 34 years old, with women tending to migrate at even younger ages than men. So where do they end up once they come into the city?
Families and singles alike are often unprepared to make the shift. Many find themselves facing many possibilities in a new city, but little means or resources to take advantage of them.
This is where Friends International (FI) has attempted to step in. The organisation’s night bus drives through the streets of Phnom Penh six nights per week, making stops to connect with people, telling anyone who will listen about the support services the local NGO offers.
The “Futures” team – FI’s newest initiative launched in 2016 alongside partner NGOs Mith Samlanh and M’Lop Tapang in response to the need of marginalised youth and caregivers for support in finding employment opportunities – has its employment officers tag along on the bus.
While Futures’ focus is on children, they also provide programmes for parents. Friends N’ Stuff, located beside the Futures complex near Phnom Penh’s riverside, sells jewellery that mothers are taught to make and then create at home while taking care of their children.
The officers on the night bus work to make young people aware of the opportunities that exist: vocational training, internships, apprenticeships, as well as career services like preparing for interviews or tweaking resumes.
But not everyone the officers speak to face the same struggles, with gender and sexuality acting as additional barriers to finding gainful employment in the capital for some of the thousands of migrants who flock to Phnom Penh every year. Therefore, the night bus crew spend a lot of time speaking with sex workers – mainly young women, but also young men and trans individuals – many of whom are rural migrants that have come to the city.
But even among those many migrant workers who do find employment, Cambodia’s vast informal sector exposes them to “systemic risk of exploitation and abuse,” according to the UNDP.
Going to them
Chhan Phearin, who is now 20 years old, first heard of the Futures programme when one of its outreach teams came to his community of Koh Krobey island off Cambodia’s coast.
He graduated from the programme and found his current job through Futures, which conducts most of its work in Cambodia, but has footholds in Thailand and Laos as well.
This is how the organisation finds many of its students said the programme’s employment technical coordinator Sara Perry – by going to them. “That’s the real key of it. We very much meet people where they’re at. We don’t force anybody.”
Phearin went through the cooking stream of vocational training, first learning foundational skills such as how to maintain proper hygiene in the kitchen, before tackling finer cooking techniques and undertaking internships making Western and Asian food. Now he works for a Japanese restaurant in the capital, and hopes to open his own small business back home in a few years.
What Phearin said was really pivotal for him was the ‘soft skills’ training he received alongside his main programme.
“I used to have problems with controlling my emotions,” said Phearin. “From when I was a student until I started working, I got angry very easily … it was difficult for me to cope as well. I learned to manage this issue myself and by speaking to the managers.”
The anger management issues he used to face would have been seen as the ultimate liability in a job that sees him interacting with colleagues and customers, but he no longer feels overwhelmed in the moment.
Phearin’s case represents a microcosm of a wider truth in Cambodia: prospective employees and the companies offering jobs are currently disconnected. Companies, dissatisfied with current staff, are struggling to find new talent, but are rarely meeting the many potentially high-quality people eager to work for them.
“It’s not because there’s not enough labour in Cambodia – there is. It’s just that the information that there’s work here is not reaching everyone,” said Phay Pichoudom, Futures’ employment project manager.
In its 2019 outlook report released this spring, the Asian Development Bank pointed to a stark skills gap, with some employers choosing not to hire at all, it found, rather than hire underwhelming employees. While a survey released in late 2016, conducted by Cambodia’s National Employment Agency on skill shortages and skills gaps in the country’s labour market, found that almost half of establishments with vacancies reported experiencing recruitment difficulties. Participating establishments listed customer handling, taking initiative and working as part of a team as the top three skills they thought needed improvement, and said that the majority of their employees often did not exhibit them.
And although Cambodia has what, at first glance, seems like a reassuringly low unemployment rate – only 0.1% by late 2019 estimates – that number can be deceiving, with the quality of employment often lacking.
These statistics stand out in a global market more commonly characterised as one in which high unemployment rates are common and prospective employees face heavy competition for few jobs. But that’s not the case in Cambodia, and a bigger problem, more so than employers waiting for qualified applicants, is that some of the Kingdom’s most vulnerable, such as young people, are falling through the cracks.
I think the possibilities for what we do are really endless at the moment, because there’s just very little elsewhere
Sara Perry, Future’s employment technical coordinator
But Futures, looking to address this issue, offers a programme that addresses soft skills, perhaps the most overlooked gap in Cambodia’s workforce and an area multiple national reports have spotlighted as an ongoing issue.
Oudom said these skills are lacking in certain sections of the general population.
“With marginalised youth, they have a certain way of communicating, which can be difficult in a working environment,” he explained. “So if you only did school until grade six or nine, compared to those who did all of university, you don’t have enough experience or enough context; [you lack] that understanding of the best ways to interact or communicate in a professional environment.”
Soft skills encompass everything someone might need to succeed professionally beyond the basic skill sets of their vocation. Futures’ version has seven tiers, each building upon the previous one, and covers everything from being accountable for personal behaviour, to being part of a team, and handling conflict. These lessons come in especially handy for customer-oriented jobs, as in the restaurant industry or customer service, that make up large sections of the Cambodian workforce.
“If you’re from a marginalised part of the population, you don’t have a voice – and there’s no way outside of soft skills education to learn [otherwise],” Perry said.
Saing Sochantrea, one of the organisation’s soft skills trainers, said that preparing students for their eventual careers in this individualised, holistic way is her primary job. “We use the student-based, participant-based approach, so the trainer, the facilitator, makes the students do everything by themselves,” she explained.
The whole point of soft skills is that young people are learning to articulate themselves and work in a group – so it’s essential that they spend their lessons collaborating with the other members of their class.
Perry underscored that the desire in Cambodia for soft skills training is high, and not just targeting the most marginalised groups.
“What research tells us, and what everybody in the employment industry is telling us, is that it’s not just the people who are the most marginalised that need this support … Employers are desperate to provide it to their employees,” she said.
And while Futures trained and supported 1,700 youth towards eventual employment in 2018, with many of those partaking in vital soft skills training, Perry has even loftier ambitions for the programme going forward.
“I think the possibilities for what we do are really endless at the moment, because there’s just very little elsewhere,” she said.
This article has been researched and written in partnership with Friends International. Read more stories here.