ASEAN 2015 integration: Skills competitiveness as an imminent crisis?

With Cambodia chairing ASEAN this year, the South China Sea issue is gaining spotlight as all eyes are on how the host will be smarting with the hot potato being thrown at it. But so far, the South China Sea issue appears to have failed to strike a lasting chord at home. In a country where 3 out of 4 persons are in their 30s, they may be less concerned with developments that are far from home when it comes to ASEAN.

The creation of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) may have been little heard of here. Even if it were, that was usually considered as a small enclave of specialists and policy makers with apparently little relevance to the daily life of the population. All in a sudden this has begun to change. With most schools and universities closed to make way for delegates from ASEAN countries to summits and important meetings, and the city residents having to navigate sealed-off roads, it is difficult for ASEAN, and in particular the AEC, to not become part of the daily conversation of those who soon will experience it first hand.

At stake is the 300,000 young adults who enter the job market every year. This year, 110,000 students will complete their high school and most will continue into higher education, according to a report by the ministry of education. They, together with their senior brethens, may probably constitute the first generations of competitors in the AEC job arena. Opportunities are abundant in this vast market. At the same time, the prospect is also frightening. In universities where I’ve been to, students held debates and discussion about job prospect in the AEC; yet the tone in most discussion was about the fear of job loss and fierce competition that is difficult to win. “University students may have reason for fear” experts said in a recent news report. And indeed, one need not wait until 2015 to see why this is so.

Lurking behind the surface of these fears has been the usual culprit: skills (or the lack thereof). Skills competitiveness will definitely count in the AEC, among many other things. The more our workforce is skilled, the more chance it will get employed. A programme of skills development should therefore be forthcoming and considered urgent.

But how to? In the jargon of skills development, skills are divided into “soft” and “hard” skills. “Soft” skills refer to competencies and personal attributes of individuals. According to a well-known study, Soft skills comprise two main groups: thinking skills (critical and creative thinking) and behavioral skills (perseverance, self-discipline, teamwork and ability to manage risk). “Hard” skills are technical abilities such as operating machines or IT knowledge. Both are important. Most soft skills are learned in early childhood, while hard skills in schools or training centers.

“Producing” skilled workers therefore involves having more training centers and vocational schools or a more drastic overhauling of the education system–depending on which skills we are talking about.

What are the skills “problems” in Cambodia? What does it mean when employers said our workforce does not have the “right skills”? Results from a 2008 survey of employers are stunning:

76% of employers said graduates are not equipped with required set of skills, in particular soft skills rather than technical or hard skills. Among the soft skills most difficult to find are: work attitudes in unskilled workers; decision-making skills in semi-skilled workers; analytical skills in skilled workers. What is so alarming is this: 89% of employers had difficulties working with recent young graduates because of behavioral issues.

Rectifying this requires focusing on the education system that shapes behavior since early childhood and continuing into adulthood. It is mainly about what kind of people the state would want to “produce” and live within it. It is in the end a matter of national survival writ large.

These results are confined to Cambodia; they may not apply generally to other AEC employers. It could be that they need only workers with enough hard/technical skills to perform the tasks regardless of the quality of their soft skills. Only time can tell.

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ASEAN 2015 integration: Skills competitiveness as an imminent crisis?

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