From the left to the right, H.E Kan Chan Meta, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and Dr. Eric Mousset, Education Forum (October 2016) © IBC

Expected Soft Skills In Times of Hardening Competition

“Overcoming education challenges will require long-term commitment and cooperation from employers, business associations, market operators, along with Education & TVET policymakers.”

-Dr Eric Mousset

The term “soft skills” emerged during the final decades of the 20th century, when competition­ facing economies gradually entered a post­ industrial era, inducing drastic evolutions in management principles. Until then, an employee was expected to master a minimum skillset centred on a given professional occupation. Related skills were commonly referred to as “technical  skills” or “hard skills”. Then, boardroom discussions acknowledged the necessity for the firm to continuously readjust its competitive strategy vis­ a-vis changing market conditions: i.e. present an attractive package of core competences to the market; establish underpinning capabilities and processes; and assemble resources accordingly, including human resources. That is when cross­-cutting skills revealed their tangible influence in the equation of successful competitiveness, alongside job-specific skills. The distinction between both types of skills is now institutionalised within the European classification of Skills, Competences, qualifications and Occupations (ESCO) and referred to as follows in this article: Occupation-Centric Skills – centred on a given occupation – vs. Transversal Skills – reusable across occupations.

The ESCO framework serves as a reference across EU member states. For example, general medicine practitioner or HR  officer  are  some  types  of professional occupations where the “ability to exert empathy- plays a central role – in which case the skill in focus is both an “occupation-centric skill” (operational point of view) and a “soft skill” (psychological point of view). Implications for the education sector include curriculum definition (major rather than elective), pedagogic (competency-based rather than knowledge­ based), and evaluation (observation in internship environment rather than sitting examination). Conversely, a vast majority of Cambodian organisations recognise the  crucial  importance of planning own work as a “transversal  skill” (operational point of view), which is commonly regarded as a “harder skill” (psychological point of view).

Just how strategic are transversal skills to an organisation

In a recent employer survey for the Ministry of Education, employers identified which particular skills might unleash their organisation’s strategic potential, if powered with adequate skills supply. Survey results reveal an interesting finding, which is the significance of the share of transversal skills (see Figure 1).

Results also showed the kinds of benefits yielded thanks to adequate transversal skills (Figure 2) or thanks to adequate foreign language proficiency skills (Figure 3). A striking finding is the linkage between adequate supply of transversal skills and the ability for the organisation to innovate or differentiate – a most essential strategic competence of the firm indeed – appearing as second top score. The latter finding may be explained by organisations’ drastic needs in terms of critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, or creative & entrepreneurial thinking skills. The aforementioned survey also captured employers’ expectations in terms of desired skill levels from fresh bachelor and master degree graduates revealing high levels of expectations for master degree graduates (Figure 4). All skills are expected to be developed at an advanced level including “harder” skills.

 

Figure 2 and 3. Strategic benefits for the organisation when adequate supply of transversal skills (top chart) and foreign language proficiency skills (bottom chart) are available.

An authorisation was granted by H.E. Minister Hang Chuon Naron for reusing data, charts and findings from the MoEYS report titled “Analysis of Skills Demand Related to Cambodian Higher Education Graduates – Policy Recommendations for the Adjustment of Skills Supply”. The questionnaire-based survey prepared by MoEYS elicited responses from private companies and NGOs representing a fair cross section of activity sectors, a total workforce of 16,588 employees, a total pool of 4,431 higher education degree holders, and a net demand of 1,471 higher education degree holders per annum. Despite the carefulness of the initial survey design (quantitative information quoted in the present article should be interpreted as qualitative hints rather than mathematical approximations of the reality).

 

From the left to the right, H.E Kan Chan Meta, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and Dr. Eric Mousset, Education Forum (October 2016) © IBC

 

How employment and education sectors may join forces to build a solution

The  nature  of challenges which the Cambodian economy is currently facing does share commonalities with various  other countries, yet a gap remains to be bridged that appears to be broader. Important efforts are being carried out on various fronts toward that end. The apparel & footwear manufacturing sector plans to open new vocational training centres. So does the tourism sector which, in addition, has established a competency framework in  conformance with the ASEAN Economic Community’s Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA’s). A first-ever ICT policy has been released recently, identifying ICT human capital development as a core pillar, while MoEYS is conducting drastic reforms on its side. And the list goes on, thereby reinforcing a sense of confidence in the nation’s ability to overcome the said challenges in a medium-term future.

Meanwhile, however, the question does remain as to which particular options a given organisation is left with. A “first scheme implies isolated actions, whereby a given organisation offers internship opportunities, delivers guest lectures, or collaborates with an education institution while defining curriculums and assessment methods – with a possibility of labelling related activities as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). A second scheme would imply coordination of actions within the scope of an entire economic activity sector or value chain. A third and more ambitious scheme would weigh the costs to be incurred in the needed reforms, weigh macroeconomic benefits expected in the long run, spell out the distribution of responsibilities amongst proponents, and formalise all of the above as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). Whether partnerships should continue along the first scheme as they have for the past couple of decades, or place a stronger emphasis on the second scheme, as has increasingly been the case during the past decade, or engage in a formal and ambitious skills readjustment PPP is a strategic choice that you have the ability to influence.

A long term commitment to answer education challenges

In the meanwhile, however, the question does remain as per which particular options a given organisation is left with.  A first scheme implies isolated actions whereby a given organisation offers internship opportunities, delivers guest lectures, or collaborates with an education institution while defining curriculums and assessment methods – with a possibility of labelled related activities as “CSR”. A second scheme would imply coordination of actions within the scope of an entire economic activity sector or value chain. A third and more ambitious scheme would weigh the costs to be incurred in the needed reforms, weigh macroeconomic benefits expected in the long run, spell out the distribution of responsibilities amongst proponents, and formalise all of the above as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). Whether partnerships should continue along the first scheme as they have for the past couple of decades, or place a stronger emphasis on the second scheme as has increasingly been the case during the past decade, or engage in a formal and ambitious skills readjustment, PPP is a strategic choice which you have the ability to influence.

Dr Eric Mousset has undertaken multiple consulting assignments,  bringing technical assistance to line ministries and government agencies in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and  Sri  Lanka  for  education  sector  and private sector development projects. This includes conducting a skills demand study in collaboration with MoEYS (RGC) in 2014.