These unprecedented changes demand a strategic development roadmap, policy and clear national economic recovery and response plans from the government. Informal workers were among the most impacted groups with a reported 68% unable to meet their daily needs with their earnings after the Covid-19 outbreak, according to a recent socio-economic impact assessment conducted by UNDP Cambodia. And as workers are facing income losses and job shortages, and businesses have to reduce their operations, what is tomorrow's opportunity outlook for the young Cambodian workforce?
The time window for reskilling and upskilling workers has become shorter and the country's education system is still far behind in achieving that. There are only two grades in the current highschool curriculum where ICT curriculum is offered. 85% of Cambodia's workforce did not complete secondary school (Work Bank, 2019). This inadequate and low productivity workforce affected more than 17% of companies operating in Cambodia (World Bank Enterprise Survey, 2016), and resulted in over 51% of jobs without regular salaries. Although the young workforce is perceived as a key driver in economic development, the urgent need to shape their opportunity to do so is crucial.
The Global Digital Readiness Index conducted by CISCO in 2018 scored Cambodia at 8.60/25, compared to the global average of 11.93. In Neighbouring countries, Lao PDR ranked at 9.48, Thailand 12.53 and Vietnam 12.56. How can a nation take full benefit from the young workforce when their digital competency is still very limited?
Countries like Cambodia need to remain competitive for the country’s workforce to compete in the region and the global workforce market. The increasing demand in technology and automation is forcing workers to reskill themselves for the new future of work. In Cambodia, this is where workforce reskilling is often focused on digital skills and not enough on human skills, such as social and emotional intelligence, and higher cognitive skills. With the rise in demand for technology, social, emotional and higher cognitive skills will rise in parallel (McKinsey, 2018).
It is important that the country has a strategy for both digital skills and human skills, and a clear vision to upskill today's current roster of jobs in Cambodia . This may continue to advance agricultural and farming techniques for farmers, or enhance human skills such as workers' mindsets to improve workforce productivity.
A well balanced focus on today's jobs and clear actionable work-plans to reskill the workforce for tomorrow's opportunities should be assessed carefully prior to setting ambitious goals towards a digital society. The government needs to collect more data and evidence on what kind of jobs will be lost and gained in the future workforce. This may paint a clearer picture of where the country should put its focus to bridge the skills gap.
Adopting technology acceleration in youth entrepreneurship
To address critical issues in workforce digital competency, as well as promote reskilling and upskilling for the young workforce, UNDP Cambodia launched a Youth Employment Project in 2014. The project aims to deploy solutions and generate key evidence and insights on youth digital literacy to help the Cambodian government, development partners and private sector to shape the future workforce outlooks in the era of digital economy and Industry 4.0.
However, these insights and assessments are not yet enough for all sectors to cope with future employment in the country. We need more actions to shape the upskilling and reskilling of the current workforce.
In an attempt to contribute solutions for immediate and long term needs, one of the initiatives that the Youth Employment Project at UNDP supports is to equip Cambodia's youth for the arrival of Industry 4.0 through a technology acceleration framework. The goal is to build, invest and scale a next generation of young entrepreneurs.
The Bluetribe incubation programme was launched in March 2020 to select high potential individuals with bold ideas that could shape the future workforce and employability to be as competitive as other countries in the region. This is the first initiative that UNDP Cambodia is applying the technology acceleration model to incubate tech startups, create high-skilled employment among Cambodian youth, and create future jobs for other youth by upskilling high potential talents with world-class entrepreneurship programmes.
To date, there are seven companies under development to help the country's young workforce in various ways. Among these is a business that targets the upskilling of informal workers in the construction sector (HomeApp), a business reskilling recently out of work people to become professional trained babysitters (S&C), and the connecting of demand and supply for high-skilled professionals for child care development. Another startup focuses on creating a market platform (WheelCiti) to onboard Cambodian Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) to digital platforms so they have an online presence and help potential customers find them. The programme also includes a team that recently finished their high school education, and are building an online and offline learning platform combined with experiential learning tool kits (KlemBox) to increase digital learning and promote STEM and entrepreneurship education in public schools.
It’s an achievement that UNDP’s Youth Employment Project programme is leveraging technology and business acumen to shape tomorrow's opportunities for youth, but it’s still very far from the required reskilling and upskilling of two thirds of the Cambodian population under the age of 30.
Partnering for the young workforce's employability and sustainability
A proverb that says "if we want to go fast we go alone, but if we want to go far we go together," might offer the answer to what next possible collective actions to take to resolve Cambodia’s future workforce question.
"The government needs to lead us in the right direction and define a clear education reform roadmap toward digital adoption for Cambodian youth" was a call to action from H.E. Ms. Chea Serey, Assistant Governor and Director General of the Central Bank at the National Bank of Cambodia, at the Youth National Dialogue organised by UNDP Cambodia, YouthCo:Lab and Impact Hub Phnom Penh in July.
Besides providing scholarships for students to pursue their education at the National Institute of Posts, Telecoms and ICT (NIPTIC) and abroad, the fund built and opened the country’s first ICT Innovation Centre inside the NIPTIC campus in recent months to promote innovation and technology R&D, including the Internet of Things, data science, and Khmer language processing.
"Formal Education and Technical Vocational Education and Training remain top priority. However, this is difficult and time consuming to reform. We need immediate interventions if Cambodia wants to make progress and ensure its demographic dividend to be fully reaped," said Mr. Nuon Virak, Youth Employment Project Coordinator at UNDP Cambodia.
Virak continues to offer solutions by proposing stakeholders look at job diversification. In addition to local economic revitalisation and diversification, he believes any interventions that equip Cambodia's youth with digital skills such as coding, graphic design or digital entrepreneurship can equip them to win jobs available online. This may pave the way for Cambodian’s workforce to move into tomorrow's remote jobs that will be available from anywhere.
Navigating the path toward tomorrow's jobs is not an easy task. It requires a social protection programme to support workers during this searching and reskilling period, and strong collaboration between the government and private sector to help the workforce stay put, especially for displaced and at-risk workers.
Fortunately, Cambodia is a young society and these youthful populations are eager to learn and succeed. There are many ways to prepare, whether through upskilling and reskilling programmes supported by employers, or business incubators building future entrepreneurs run by an organisation like UNDP, or educational reform that equips students with critical and creative thinking to adapt and stay relevant in the workplace. The possibilities are endless.