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Agency for Change

As Cambodia continues to build its presence in the Asean region, and with more and more international companies bringing their operations here, the complexities of developing an adequate labour force are coming to the fore. Management Insider spoke with Hay Hunleng, adviser to the National Employment Agency, about the challenges the organisation faces and the need to promote job training and employment services.


“ If you look at the construction and real estate sectors, I think it is the most viable for long-term employment because we need more infrastructure and new developments are happening everyday. ”

– Hay Hunleng, Adviser, National Employment Agency

What is the ultimate purpose of the National Employment Agency?

The National Employment Agency has two key mandates. One is offering employment services, and the other is providing labour market information to jobseekers and policy makers.

How does the NEA help jobseekers become employees?

We have found that many candidates do not even know what they are looking for. As such, during initial registration, before we make referrals, we provide counselling and advice to clients to help us fine tune the search. We also collect data from the private sector to define labour trends, skill gaps, and the specific needs of employers at any given time. We hope that this data can also be used to help shape policy and promote training of the skills that are most needed.

Who does the NEA target in terms of finding employment?

For the moment, the majority of candidates would be from the low-skilled labour force with rural backgrounds and little to no education. These people are the most vulnerable, so they need support most of all. Unlike private recruitment agencies, the NEA focuses on those with little information and who have been marginalised. Private recruitment agencies tend to be more like headhunters.

How does the NEA register jobseekers?

Because they are scattered all around the country, we must rely on outreach and recruitment events at the commune level, where we announce that we are coming to an area ahead of time and have local officials gather the community together. We bring three or four employers with us to meet potential employees, and many are offered jobs on the spot and are working within days.

Besides recruitment events, we also dispatch our officials to the provinces to gather statistics so we can gauge the level of employment there.

The NEA acquires lots of data on employment. How well do you believe it represents the overall situation?

I don’t think our data can be considered representative of the whole country, but it certainly can be used as a rough gauge for some trends. We currently have 68,682 registered jobseekers, and over the last five years we have seen the numbers fluctuate. For instance, in 2014 when all the migrant workers were returning from Thailand over fears of a government crackdown following the coup, our database tripled, but this year it has only grown by 10 to 20%.

What is the employment strike rate among your registered candidates?

Of the 68,682 candidates in our database, we will only refer around 30,000 to employers. Of that number, only about 10,000 actually gain employment from our service.

Why are so many jobseekers unsuccessful?

Currently, we face the difficulty of our jobseekers having inadequate or mismatched skills for the positions that are available. Given our target clients, this is a common problem. For us, the most lacking skills are within the industrial sectors – auto mechanics, construction workers – and those working on light manufacturing assembly lines.

With many companies looking to enter Cambodia to take advantage of the low cost of labour, is skills training keeping up with demand?

I think, for now, the companies that are shifting here see the benefits of privately training their workers. Just look at Minebea. Plus, with the mobility of these companies, when initially starting up they can temporarily absorb the numbers needed at the low skill level, while also bringing in higher paid workers from outside the country at the managerial level. But gradually, through training, low-skilled workers could move into higher positions. But if employers are not providing skills training and are only looking to retain a low skilled labour force, these workers can fall into a trap of exploitation.

How can low skilled labourers carve out a career path toward higher wages?

In terms of designing workers’ career paths, training is what we need first. Otherwise, workers believe that they will only see their salary increase through collective bargaining, demonstrations or protests, which doesn’t really work in the long run. What we can do is create a dialogue to make workers more confident that they are actually on a career path – having them visualise how they can climb the employment ladder instead of getting stuck in a low-skilled manufacturing job. That is why the NEA tries to provide training programs to garment factory unions and labour representatives. We also promote job vacancies for those that are looking to move out of garment factories.

Long term, what do you believe is the most viable sector for employment?

If you look at the construction and real estate sectors, I think it is the most viable for long-term employment because we need more infrastructure and new developments are happening everyday. However, what we see is that while there are more opportunities in construction, the majority of companies do not take our referrals.

Why is that?

It could be for two reasons. Either there is a lack of locally skilled engineers and technicians, or those workers don’t register with us because they can easily find jobs through networking and contacts.

What can be done in the future to develop Cambodian skills?

When developing skills, you have to talk about having the right curriculum for the future. This is often a challenge between ministries. For example, when talking about vocational training, the Ministry of Labour is in charge. But now the Ministry of Education has started its own vocational training programme as well. And they do not teach the same things. So, these two training programmes need to join together to promote the necessary skills for the future. A coordinated approach is needed. Meanwhile, the private sector needs to keep us up to date with what skills are needed so we can incorporate them, or a public and private collaboration makes no sense. Together, we all need to have a concrete plan to move ahead.

Photograph by Kali Kotoski