A walk down Inya Road, Yangon often displays a pleasant spectacle, black robed, hat-clad young graduates posing for photographs outside Yangon University. It is a time for celebration of a big event, a bigger achievement and seemingly the threshold of a great work life, where these students will apply the knowledge they have acquired. The young graduates are naïve, with rosy dreams and visions of a great career soon seeing jobs become a distant dream – the list of applications grows longer in as much as the rejections. The reason – employers want skills that are not being taught at colleges and universities. The result – we find graduates in physics and geology working as waitresses and shop assistants.

The world over, fresh graduates are recruited since they bring in a fresh perspective and enthusiasm, and can be trained as per the company’s requirements, but the training requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding, prior exposure to a work culture, communication, interpersonal and digital skills.

Employability is a global concern too with specialists in education finding innovative ways to raise the standard of students to make them ‘work ready’. This is a bigger worry in developing nations where scores of educational institutions, many of dubious standards mushroom, and churn out graduates and successful diploma holders, whose skills, knowledge levels and capability do not meet the basic workplace threshold. 

Myanmar is no different and in the last 8 years, Yangon at least has seen dozens of colleges, academies and institutions of higher education have come up, offering international degrees and diplomas at a big cost. But do they deliver what they promise? Do the certificated hold value, and get jobs for the passing out students, who can deliver and meet job requirements? The answer is disappointing.

Myanmar growth stems from the opening up of the economy, and international organizations have opened offices here. The desire to hire qualified locals often backfires when human resource officers find a vast gap between the education the youth have received, and the job requirements in their organization.

It is this conflict and classical gap between employability and education that explains the low employment rate of the youth in Myanmar, which has 55% of its population under 30 years of age, and 17% of these are neither studying nor employed, as quoted in the Myanmar Times from a survey conducted by the government and the International Labor Organization. It is unfortunate that 26% of the unemployed youth hold university degrees, implying that they are unemployable – lacking in skills required at the workplace. 

Requirements for Employability

Employability refers to the skills and capability required in an individual to get a job. A few basic skills include pleasant attitude, etiquette, and demeanor, interpersonal skills, ability to communicate, knowledge and competence to handle the role assigned. Additionally, the ability to adapt, learn fast, deliver desirable outcomes help people retain their jobs, or else it becomes frustrating for both employer and employee. 

At present, the first level of requirements by employers in Myanmar are English language skills and being digitally savvy, followed by the capability to communicate and job specific specialized knowledge. This is stated multitude of times by foreign employers and recruiters. In an interview with Myanmar Insider last month, Christopher Loh, CEO of uab bank, stated, “our biggest challenge is human capital….we need banking talent with the right competencies combined with experience……”. 

The students’ dilemma and needs

Students passing out of college and university themselves find that though they are applying for jobs linked to their subject, their academic knowledge is not oriented towards a career where this can be applied. Lacking practical skills, no one to mentor and train, they end up leaving jobs even if they find them, because they are unable to perform. Many end up with jobs that do not match their qualifications, a challenge reported in the ILO report on Youth Employment Situation in Myanmar.

Students remain confused when they close their books and wonder how their learning will fit into the workplace. For instance, it is one thing to know the definitions of monetary policy, inflation, price mechanism etc in economics, but quite another to see how these actually work in the real world with numerous other forces in play. 

Fresh graduates have been found to require 6 months to two years to reach a level of contributing adequately to an industry, but with diligence and drive. Many have been found to leave much before they reach that level. It is unfortunate that even after a plum degree from a reputed institute, their workplace experience turns out this way. 

Earning money is a basic need and after investing so much time, effort and money into acquiring a degree, it is only natural to expect that the job will compensate them sufficiently. Big cities warrant higher earnings to meet higher living expenses.

Those who can afford it, choose to study abroad, but majority of them have to pursue college education in Myanmar. Lack of access to latest education methods, they follow the age old system with hopes of finding jobs. Some are motivated to join additional short courses, improve English skills and undergo trainings. 

Ideally, on-the-job-training is what they need, or a mentoring program where current employees mentor new recruits. This hand holding helps fresh graduates gain confidence at the workplace.

Employers’ frustrations  

The biggest frustration for employers is the gap they find between their perception and expectation of competencies they need in their organizations and the ones the prospective employees have received through education.

The number of professional organizations and multinationals has been on the increase in Myanmar, and while the workplace, the work environment and talent pool has seen a radical transformation in the last five years, it has yet to meet international standards. The gap between expectations and what is available, makes employers either wait till the right candidate appears, or compromise on recruitment. 

Finding the right talent of qualified individuals who will deliver as per the requirements of the job, is the biggest challenge and worry for companies. Investment in building human capital, through the right training has become an urgent need. 

At the other end of the spectrum, retaining talent has also become a big concern with job hopping quite common and poaching of talent as well. Many companies, especially in tourism and hospitality industry invest a lot in training employees and upgrading their skills, which becomes a waste since many of them leave.

Many employers only consider people with experience. So where would fresh graduates go?

Measures to bridge the gap

Educators in Myanmar are well aware of the gap between degrees and employment, the missing hard and soft skills, the lack of creativity and the ability to apply technical skills in the workplace. This warrants an overhauling of the education system, incorporating vocational skills, opening career centers that work closely with industries and provide inputs on industry requirements and how to bridge the gap. Radically changing the current education system is of special interest to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The National Education Strategy 2016-21 details changes that will provide ‘quality, equitable and relevant education’ that will equip students with ‘new knowledge, competencies, creativity and critical thinking skills’.  Besides changes in university and college curricula, the government has set up 372 TVETs (technical, vocational education and training centers) linked to specific ministries and private organizations that now complement academic learning. The TVETs are playing a significant role in creating a skilled and competent, employable workforce.

Changes in the system of education apart, what is helping is the setting up of training institutes in collaboration with foreign countries. The Mandalay Institute of Information Technology (MIIT) set up in collaboration between the governments of Myanmar and India has been providing high quality education in the fields of engineering and computer science. The SMVTI (Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute) is a joint venture between the governments of Singapore and Myanmar and imparts vocational training to adult learners in the fields of tourism, engineering, hospitality and many basic services. The Center for Vocational Training (CVT) is a Swiss Institute that offers vocational training through apprenticeship to disadvantaged children who have fallen out of the education stream, besides three-year courses based on the Swiss education model.  Numerous other institutes like AKI and the upcoming Japan-Myanmar Aung San Vocational Training Institute hold promise of better opportunities for the job seeking youth.

Setting up of a larger network of ‘institutes of skill development’, focusing on STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), a practice followed in Singapore and Vietnam, creating regular short term vocational training opportunities and mentoring in organizations, will serve both employers and employees well. Training linked to the agricultural sector will help productivity and efficiency in this field as well.

It is not just in Myanmar, but many countries are introducing vocational training as an integral part of college education. Vocational training does not churn out large numbers due to personalized attention that is essential, but works well in small groups. It also focuses only on the requisite skills and provides hands-on experience. The practical opposed to the theoretical takes the lead, besides problem-solving and application.

The centuries old system of education where we learn more about the past than the present, where information is seemingly more important than applicable knowledge, where critical thinking faculties never really develop, needs to be discarded, and replaced by present theories and practices, while simultaneously involving industry specialists along with academicians to formulate educational policies so that what is learnt through education, makes students employable and ready to deliver.