Cambodia’s Challenge: STEM Development

Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) have been identified by the public and private sector as areas with great potential for development in Cambodia. Following this direction, or ignoring it, could go a long way to shaping the future of the nation. 

“At present, growth is limited by the quantity and quality of the human resources available.”

-Allen Dodgson Tan

In recent times, we have seen increased discussion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers and their importance for the development of Cambodia. Indeed, STEM professionals are required for many industries including agribusiness, construction, manufacturing and general IT support. We have also seen the growth of cambodia as a location for global tech outsourcing in fields such as app and web development. At present, however, the growth of all of these industries is limited by the quantity and quality of the human resources available.

As Cambodia increasingly becomes a destination for companies interested in capitalising on a young workforce and relatively business-friendly environment, these companies will face  this critical human resources constraint. In business chambers, we have seen multinationals come on fact-finding trips, only to leave for this very reason. As employers, many of us have faced this challenge first hand, whether attempting to hire a mechanic, a machinist or a software engineer.

“Hiring skilled staff who were trained in other companies is a common practice worldwide.”

How Businesses Survive

Currently, we see businesses employ three  modalities for securing skilled human resources in the STEM professions: 1. Comprehensive in-house training programs which transform unskilled/semi-skilled labour into skilled labour; 2. Hiring seasoned cambodian professionals trained in/by other companies; 3. Hiring from overseas.

We can see some impressive examples of in­ house training programs which employ the “brute force” method to develop their own STEM human resources. They exist at Porsche, iThinkAsia and even the non-profit product development lab I run in Phnom Penh. While this approach works, it is costly and carries significant business risk as newly developed employees  can quickly be hired away in a market hungry for their new skills, taking with them your investment.

Hiring skilled staff who were trained in other companies is a common practice  worldwide, however, in the case of  mid- and entry­ level employees, this can be a costly proposition that yields a corporate culture of high turnover. Likewise, for many positions, overseas hires are prohibitively expensive. Overseas hires also do little to address the structural issues of human resources development for Cambodia.

Current Issues

The causes of this skills gap are not a mystery. Cambodia’s education system isonly now beginning to recover from the Khmer Rouge period, suffering from alack of qualified teachers, insufficient facilities and a host of structural problems too complex to address in this article. This is well  known by the Royal  Government  of  cambodia,  and significant reforms   at   the   Ministry  of   Education,   Youth and  Sports  under  H.E.  Dr  Hang  Chuon Naron have  made  progress  toward  addressing  these challenges, but much remains to be done.

In addition to institutional shortcomings, STEM professions in Cambodia suffer from issues of perception in Cambodian society. Careers centered around office work such as banking, finance, accounting  and  “business”  are  the  dominant choices of university students. These are perceived by many students to be well-paying careers and high-status jobs. When students do want to study STEM professions, parents, extended family and friends have a large influence. Parents often make the final decision, and little data has been collected about what parents know about STEM professions. This is an area in which we are working  to collect more information.

Vocational training, which  many business people would argue has an even greater importance than degree   programs  in  an  emerging   Cambodian manufacturing   sector,    is   subject    to   similar challenges of perception. “Dirty jobs” which require being  outside  or  working with  your  hands are considered  to  be  lower-class  professions.  This stands indirect contrast tothe reality where a skilled engineer  is almost  certainly  making significantly more than  an  administrator  of  similar  seniority.

Business Intervention

While government and the international  aid sector grapple with  the  large  structural  issues in Cambodia’s education system, what can businesses do? The problem can often seem too large or inaccessible for businesses to address, particularly when competing for time against the onslaught of daily operations. In this case we are not only speaking about CSR efforts or charity work, but active  engagement  in the  production of your own labour inputs. Without business engagement and intervention, we cannot expect or demand significant improvement

One of the easiest things businesses  can do is vocalise their support for STEM human resources development. Whether to government officials, the general public, employees or students at university job fairs, a clear message from employers makes a huge impact. Taking this one step further, there are government-private sector working groups, such as the STEM Working Group in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, which would benefit from enhanced private sector engagement.

Educational sector partnerships are a concrete step that businesses can take to shape the graduates on which they will depend. Whether private or public, most vocational and degree-granting  institutions in Cambodia are open to industry collaboration. Businesses are uniquely suited to provide guidance on curriculums and skills development and can sit on review boards which set these priorities. When possible, deeper engagements through CSR programs and direct student engagement have the potential for even greater direct impact. Supporting vocational/tertiary educational institutions through the improvement of facilities or by providing paid time for your technical staff to lecture can transform student outcomes. Direct  student engagements such as quality internships and job shadowing are mutually beneficial programs that allow students the opportunity to learn and employers the opportunity to vet potential future hires and promote their working environment.

There is also interest among those in the technical professions (including myself) to bring international professional certification  programs to Cambodia.

It is clear that addressing the skills gap in Cambodia’s human resources will be one of the most important factors in private sector growth. The clock is ticking as the current demographic bump in Cambodia sends large numbers of young people into the workforce. Whether these young people have jobs in growth industries will depend on what we do next.


An engineer trained in-house works at the Golden West Design Lab on a product destined for the international market

“One of the easiest things businesses can do is vocalise their support for STEM human resources development”

Allen Tan is the Director of Applied Technology for the Golden West Humanitarian Founda­ tion, a US non-profit with product develop­ment facilities in Phnom Penh. He is also the managing director of STEM Cambodia,a non­ profit  running  student  outreach  programs; the chair of the AmCham Committee on Education; and honorary advisor to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Spon. He has lived and worked in Cambodia for over six years and holds a master’s in business continuity and risk management from Boston University

Words by Allen Dodgson Tan