One slickly produced television ad tells students “to join the community of minds that craves to learn,” as three teenagers assemble an electrical circuit board. “Better Skills! Better income!” a group of students shout in unison, fists raised.
This is part of a campaign run by the Ministry of Labor to change the perception of vocational training. It involves TV, radio and newspaper advertisements, information sessions and a country-wide tour visiting high schools to explain the programs.
Despite the marketing campaign, convincing students to enroll in the programs remains a tough sell.
“The students don’t think it is prestigious enough,” said Mar Sophea, senior social sector officer with Asian Development Bank. “The students themselves and also the parents and society in general still give more value to higher education. Even those with an understanding about what are the real labor market needs.”
Mr. Sophea, who has worked with the government to develop its vocational training programs, says the country is suffering from “a missing middle” of skilled workers. University enrollment has skyrocketed in the last decade, with the majority of students majoring in Business Administration. Meanwhile, lower and upper secondary school enrollment rates remain low at under 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
In this middle range are the kinds of employees that many of the factories setting up in the country’s Special Economic Zones are looking for.
One estimate from a 2012 report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency predicts that if the country wants to attract foreign direct investment at a rate of 6-8 percent of Gross Domestic Product, it would need an additional 35,000 engineers and 46,000 technicians by 2018.
Theoretically, Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programs are designed to fill this gap. They allow students who have completed the ninth grade to get hands-on training in fields like electrical engineering, mechanization, welding, air conditioning repair and construction. After getting a high school equivalent diploma, they can choose to continue on to get a bachelor’s diploma or they can enter the workforce. As of this year, students who dropped out of school before the ninth grade can also enroll in “bridge” programs, building up enough credits to enter the formal certificate programs.
The programs are also for high school graduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree, as well as students who failed their grade 12 exams.
“Before, students didn’t understand. They thought they had to pass grade 12 and then study university,” said Yok Sothy, the director of the National Technical Training Institute (NTTI). “They didn’t know that when they fail, there is a place to go.”
Options for students have been growing, and there are now 39 public vocational training institutes and more than twice as many NGO- and privately-run centers. Despite this, just 1,600 students graduated from certificate level programs last year, with another 2,000 finishing post-secondary diploma programs. According to Mr. Sophea, just 3.5 percent of the workforce has completed technical training.
“The problem with vocational training is that it’s not a first choice,” said Unesco education specialist Santosh Khatri. “The image or perception is that it isn’t for those who are smart. There’s a mismatch between the kind of work young people aspire to and what is available to them.”
Nonetheless, the government has identified TVET training as a pillar of its development plans and experts say that the programs are beginning to gain traction. In the recently published Industrial Development Policy, it identified the “scarcity of basic technological skills” as one of the obstacles to attracting investment.
NTTI’s Mr. Sothy says that progress has been gradual but steady. His school opened in 1999 with just 200 students. They now have nearly 4,000 and attract on average 500-700 every year.
“If we compare the last two or three years, the increase in enrollment is very high,” he said. “The labor market has a lot of demand.”
For TVET program heads like Mr. Sothy, the challenges are not just in attracting students but also in ensuring the curriculum is relevant to the workplace. With help from ADB, the Ministry of Labor has been working with an advisory group from the private sector to develop a core set of standards, and the ministry is also increasing oversight of each school to ensure that these standards are met.
One of the biggest challenges remains updating equipment.
Most students pay a modest tuition, and at public institutions like NTTI teacher salaries and electrical bills are subsidized by the government. Beyond these contributions, buying new equipment is mostly up to the schools.
“TVET is very expensive, because you need up-to-date equipment, machinery and so on,” Mr. Sophea said. “The public investment is never enough.”
Thorng Samon, TVET’s Deputy Director of Information, said that, if approved, next year’s budget will see a “significant” increase in funding for the sector. Much of that funding would be used to increase scholarship programs for poor students.
Despite the government’s support for TVET programs, Mr. Samon said that private businesses should also be contributing, but resist doing so.
Mr. Sophea agrees that getting businesses more involved in vocational training is crucial to programs’ success. He would like to see them provide more internships and apprenticeships to students and be more involved in training teachers who may not have up-to-date industrial experience.
“These skills are important for both the government in terms of contributing to the economy and also for the employer in terms of raising productivity,” he said. “A stakeholder should have some kind of shared responsibility.”
One 2013 study by the consultancy BDLINK found that large employers are struggling with high turnover, as well as high job vacancy rates, because of the difficulty of finding qualified candidates. Across the board, the study found high rates of dissatisfaction with workers’ qualifications, especially for jobs that required advanced skills. For example, in every sector more than half of plant and machine operators were judged to be “not performing.”
Nonetheless, the study also found the private industry to be disengaged with public TVET programs. Nearly every respondent to the survey provided in-house training, and the majority opposed a tax that would go towards public vocational training programs.
Despite this opposition, the Ministry of Labor is looking into this option. Mr. Samon said that they have set up a Skill Development Fund office that is discussing requiring industrial enterprises to contribute to skills training.
“Factory owners say that students need to learn this and that,” he said. “But then when we ask for help they say that they’re busy.”