Training in a broader set of skills will be key to the successful integration of Cambodian workers into a coming industrial revolution, if the country’s labour market is not to be destroyed by automation, experts have warned.

As ASEAN nations embrace what some are calling ‘Industry 4.0’, countries such as Cambodia are concerned that while this disruption will bring great opportunities, it will also negatively impact its traditional labour market, forcing people out of jobs.

And it’s not just professional skills or even IT knowledge that will be required to equip the next generation of workers for the new-look workplace. ‘Softer’ skills such as critical thinking and an ability to speak another language will be vital as the government is urged to consider a radical overhaul of the national curriculum to get ahead of the game.

Mey Kalyan, senior adviser to Cambodia’s Supreme National Economic Council, recently said: “Cambodia will struggle to find its footing as industry becomes increasingly reliant on computers and robotics. Machine-powered manufacturing will have a severe impact on socioeconomic life, and of course the impact will be more severe on poorer countries as they have only limited means and resources to respond.”

Sar Kinal, managing director of Aplus Consulting in Phnom Penh, agreed, saying Cambodia’s garment sector alone could lose half a million sewing machine jobs due to automation. “However, a new wave of advanced machines may take at least three to five years from now to affect Cambodia’s traditional labour market,” he said. “I think we should pay attention and focus on the preparation of education and skill development for the future pace of change.”

Sandra D’Amico, managing director of HR services provider HRIN Cambodia, said more flexibility and innovation in schools is needed, so that young people can adapt to changing labour markets.

“There’s a need for more industrial training. All the standard STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths] are very important, at all levels of education,” she said. “New models of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) should be sought – as the government has not been able to provide sufficient quality and quantity of TVET training for the labour market.”

“Together with hard or professional skills, the workforce needs to be equipped with skills such as foreign languages (English, Chinese, Japanese), critical thinking and analysis, as well as IT and ICT skills,” added Kinal.

Acknowledging that Cambodia’s current educational system and TVET lags behind neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam, he is still optimistic about the future. “The Cambodian government recently made a significant reform in the education system to ensure better quality and to meet the market skill needs. However, I think the government needs to consider changing the national education structure and curriculum for high school and higher education levels to meet the change.”

D’Amico said it was important to create a ‘Cambodian Talent’ brand which would mean Cambodians were sought after in the region for skilled roles – particularly in the telecom and microfinance sectors. “We need to continue to build the quality and quantity of our people so they are competitive in the ASEAN region,” she said.

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