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Young Cambodians struggle to find worthwhile jobs

Some university graduates pump petrol or deliver parcels while others leave to work abroad.

 
Seng Sovannarith was the first member of his family to graduate from university, but he could not realize his hope of becoming a history teacher, so now he delivers goods in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. (Photo by Ate Hoekstra)
Phnom Penh: 

Seng Sovannarith rides around Phnom Penh daily on his motorbike to deliver goods that people order online. He would much rather teach students about the history of Cambodia.

"I applied for jobs at ministries and at schools, but I was never selected and sometimes never heard anything after lodging my application,” the 29-year-old Cambodian tells ucanews.com. "But I needed money to survive, so I became a delivery man."

Sovannarith's situation is far from unique. Many young people in Cambodia are unable to find the type of job they are qualified for. But, in the eyes of the Cambodian government, all of them are employed.

Just two months ago, Cambodia's Labor Ministry announced that the southeast Asian nation had an unemployment rate of only 0.7 percent, one of the lowest in the world.

But the reality is far from being that rosy. Labor experts raise questions about how such a figure is calculated, not least in regard to the underlying assumptions it is based on. They also point to the large number of Cambodians working in foreign countries because they were unable to find a well-paid job in their home country.

Sovannarith, the youngest child and only university graduate in a family of eight, says his parents had high expectations of him becoming a teacher. Instead, the first job of the young history enthusiast was driving a taxi before he became a self-employed delivery driver.

His parents, unhappy at first, came to understand that he was working hard and trying his best to succeed in life. "But if I could get a teaching job I would still take it, even if it meant I would be making less money than now," Sovannarith says.

Another Cambodian disappointed by a lack of employment options is 27-year-old Ma Saron, who has a bachelor's degree in banking and finance.

When he started his studies seven years ago, he hoped that after graduating he would be working in a bank or at a microfinance institution. Instead, he is now employed at a petrol station where he has worked himself up from being a pump attendant to be made the manager.

"I graduated in 2018 and tried to find a job at many different financial institutions," Saron recounts. "One time a small microfinance institution offered me a job, but they would only pay me US$80 or US$90 per month.”

It was an offer that Saron, who now earns US$400 per month, would not accept. "The work I'm doing now is very different from what I wanted to do," he laments. "I don’t benefit from my studies at all, but I almost have no choice."

The young manager estimates that only 30 percent of his former classmates managed to get a job that matches their qualifications and skills. The others were forced to do something completely different.

"There are people out there who graduated and who are now tuk-tuk drivers,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous mini-taxis of that name. Others moved to work in Thailand or Vietnam but still struggled to find decent, well-paid work.

In a 2015 report, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that Cambodia's real unemployment rate is more likely to be around 3 percent than the government’s claimed figure of 0.7 percent.

But unemployment in itself is not the main issue because the vast majority of the population of Cambodia is simply too impoverished not to do some kind of work, the report says.

Of more importance were issues such as poor working conditions, low earnings and, often, a lack of guaranteed long-term employment.

Sar Mory agrees. He is vice-president of the Cambodian Youth Network, an NGO that aims to help young Cambodians obtain a brighter future.

"Many young people don't have a regular job and have no job security," Mory tells ucanews.com. "In the garment factories, we see people faint regularly, at construction sites safety standards are low and in the farming sector there's no regular work because there's no farming in the dry season."

Mory says that mismatches, in which young people are educated for a job that isn't available, happen all the time.

Every year 30,000 Cambodians enter the labor market, but the government doesn't provide forecasts on how many jobs are expected to be on offer in different sectors, such as banking or tourism.

"If they would do that, youth could think ahead and make the right education choice," Mory says. "Now students just study anything, often following their parents' advice."

The ADB and the ILO advise in their recent report that education-skills mismatches should be more concertedly addressed. And as well as better trained teachers, more effort is needed to improve the skills of those who are already employed.

"Both the quality of education and access to it need to be improved," the report states.

Sar Mory believes that if skills mismatches and other systemic problems in the labor market are not effectively tackled, the number of Cambodians who leave to work abroad will continue to rise.

Officially 1.2 million Cambodians already work in other countries, most commonly Thailand. But it's estimated that the real number could well be more than two million.

Despite having a degree in banking and finance, Ma Saron lost hope of finding a job that matches his skills.

"I'm already doing something entirely unrelated, so now I don't have any experience in banking and finance," the petrol station manager says. "My hope now is to save enough money to start my own business in the future."

*Additional reporting by Khan Sokummono

Source: UCAN

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