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Workforce has much to do to prep for AEC

Update: December, 06/2015 - 12:34
Opportunities abroad: Students at Hue Medical University in a practice session. The coming AEC would allow the free flow of skilled labourers in eight occupations - architects, engineers, surveyors, medical doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants and tourism professionals. — VNA/VNS Photo Huu Oai

The AEC is expected to create millions of jobs in the region, but Vietnamese workers will have to improve their professional and language skills to compete with international peers. Thu Van reports.

While hopes are high that the coming ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will bring opportunities to Vietnamese labour, the country's workforce still has a lot of work to do to take advantage of them.

The AEC, which is expected to create 14 million new jobs in the region, would allow the free flow of skilled labours in eight occupations - including architects, engineers, surveyors, medical doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants and tourism professionals.

A recent survey suggests Vietnamese workers may overestimate their own skills.

Recruitment firm Vietnam Works surveyed 2,500 professionals from companies of all sizes across the country and found that up to 92 per cent see the establishment of the AEC as a good opportunity to develop their careers. About 70 per cent think Vietnamese professionals have enough skills to compete with foreign counterparts.

Phu Huynh, a labour economist from the Bangkok-based office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said Viet Nam's perception of its workforce skills had some basis in reality.

"Viet Nam's workforce is very dynamic. The country's workers are eager to pursue new job opportunities. They have a very sound basic education, strong literacy and accounting skills," Huynh said.

Off to work we go: Engineers at 45-1 Company work at the Dong Nai Hydroplant site. — VNA/VNS Photo Van Khanh

However, Viet Nam faces stiff competition from regional neighbours who may possess better language, technology and professional skills.

In 2014, Viet Nam has about 5 million workers, just 10 per cent of the country's workforce, who were rated as high-quality manpower, or those who can work directly at positions that can generate the creation, development, dissemination and application of knowledge.

And a report done by the ILO last year revealed Viet Nam's productivity was 11 times lower than that of South Korea, 12 times lower than Japan's, and 18 times lower than in Singapore, the study says.

According to the World Bank, the gross enrollment rate in high school in Viet Nam in 2010 was 65 per cent while in South Korea it was 95 per cent.

While it's true that free trade provides new prospects for qualified Vietnamese, there might be challenges along with it for those who are not competitive enough.

"Qualified workers can obviously pursue better job opportunities abroad, but there's also a high chance foreign workers would take domestic jobs that require high added-value," said Phung Quang Huy, director of the Employers' Bureau of the Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Huy's statement is actually not just a prediction of the future, but is taking place now. According to statistics from the General Administration of Tourism, there are some 5,000 hotels ranking from three to five stars in the country, but most of the biggest ones have to hire foreigners for management positions.

"I'm more than willing to hire Vietnamese to work for my company, but for certain management positions in my hotels, I still have to hire foreigners, who have proven to be better at the jobs," said Le Hong Hai, general director of Dan Chu Tourism and Commercial Jointstock Company.

Nguyen Van Anh, managing director of Navigos Search Vietnam, a provider of executive search and management consultancy services, said in 2014 that her company wasn't able to recruit the required number of high qualified engineers and managers for projects by Microsoft Viet Nam and Samsung Viet Nam.

Lack of competitiveness

According to a survey by the World Bank, the quality of human resources of Viet Nam reached 3.79 points (out of 10), ranking 11th out of 12 countries surveyed in Asia. At the same time, South Korea scored 6.91 points; India 5.76 points; and Malaysia 5.59 points. The country's human resources are weak in quality and working style and lacked dynamism and creativity.

Desk jobs: Accountants working at Hai Ba Trung District's State Treasure Branch in Ha Noi. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Hung

Nguyen Thuong Lang, a professor at the National Economics University, said there were certain disadvantages in Vietnamese labour that could hinder their readiness for the establishment of the AEC.

Apart from low productivity as stated in the ILO's report, the quality of the Vietnamese workforce was also a weakness, Lang said. The portion of workers who can operate machines or has a good background in technology accounted for only 30 per cent of the country's workforce.

"The shortage of necessary skills for Vietnamese workers is much more serious than those from other ASEAN countries," he said.

The ILO's Phu Huynh said the challenges for Viet Nam's labour market were real.

A majority of jobs in the country were of poor quality with low earnings and productivity, he said, adding that one in two workers were still employed in agriculture and approximately four in five workers had limited technical qualifications.

"Other huge disadvantages for Vietnamese labourers are being unable to use foreign languages and a lack of discipline," Lang from the NEU said.

"Preparation in terms of languages and workmanship for the AEC among Vietnamese workers are still modest," Lang said.

Nguyen Viet Hung, operating manager of an enterprise in Song Thaân Industrial Zone in Binh Duong Province, said it took his firm six months to train all the workers to get to work on time.

Former Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh said a country's education was the most important factor reflected in the quality of its labourforce. While general education should provide students with basic knowledge and skills and help them develop their own character, such as morality and capability, higher education must equip students with specialised and practical skills and proper work ethic, she said.

Meanwhile, Viet Nam's education system fails these goals. Obviously, the consequence is that it also fails to provide society with high quality human resources, according to Binh.

Nguyen Thi Hoai Thu, training director of the WIN International Training & Consulting Management Company (WIN Viet Nam), said one of her enterprise clients would pay a three times higher wage for a Philippine candidate when having to decide between the Philippine candidate and a Vietnamese one.

"I believe many other recruiters would be willing to pay more for foreign labourers, in comparison to Vietnamese, if they have more choices when the AEC is realised," she said.

Modest preparations

Tao Bang Huy, deputy head of the Employment Department of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), said without proper preparations, it's quite possible that Viet Nam would miss the opportunities offered by the AEC.

"Proper preparations might be a bit far from what we now have in Viet Nam," experts said.

"As far as I know, other countries in the region have been preparing for the AEC for a long time. Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia have already set up their own sets of occupational standards for the eight occupations and are able to issue respective certificates which are accepted regionally. Meanwhile, Viet Nam is still in the process of doing this," said Pham Binh An, director of WTO Affairs Consultation Centre in HCM City.

Whole new world: Skilled engineers will have the chance to find better opportunities working abroad when the AEC becomes a reality. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan

The education and training ministry was assigned to work with MOLISA to draft a project on the national framework for occupational skills, but hasn't finished it. It is not known when certificates for the eight occupations will be issued.

Meanwhile, preparations by the country's labourers themselves seem not to be any better.

Thu from WIN Viet Nam, who is also a professor at the Ha Noi Tourism College, said her students didn't know much about AEC and its free flow of labour.

"While it's true that Vietnamese students lack many skills to be able to compete in the regional market, which is a consequence of our training programme's weakness, they don't know that they might face harsher competition because of AEC," Thu said.

"I think I read about the AEC somewhere on the Internet, but I don't know exactly what it is about," said Lan Phuong, a student of the Ha Noi National Economics University.

And for some others, they either don't know, or just don't care.

"I don't know what the AEC is, and I don't know about the free flow of labour either. Neither do many friends of mine," said Hoang Trung Hai, a student of Ha Noi FPT University, one of the leading schools in information and communication technology training in Viet Nam.

Nguyen Van My, chairman of the Lua Viet Tours Company, recalled his opposite experience when in Cambodia.

"I met an 11th grader in Siem Reap Night Market, who told me that her teacher reminded her and other students every day that they had to study English really well to be able to find a good job when the AEC is implemented," he said.

My said he was then really concerned about the fate of Vietnamese students.

"I'm afraid that our students will have to face harsh competition with labourers coming from regional countries for important positions. I know that managers of many five-star resorts in Viet Nam are from Myanmar and the Philipines. I'm afraid that our workers will have to compete with more of them in the future, even those coming from Cambodia," My said.

Huy from MOLISA, said whether the AEC brings chances or challenges, it would depend on one's capacity.

"You will have to be able to speak fluent English, to have proper skills including team work and communication if you want to be competitive in the labour market," he said.

"In order not to lose jobs to foreign labours, domestic workers need to equip themselves with what they are lacking right now. "

"Besides, it's of crucial importance that we conduct reforms with our education and training programmes - which are now only content-based. It should be re-designed to focus on the learner's ability," Huy said, adding that the education curricula should be designed basing on the labour market's demand.

"There should be more time in the programmes to train working skills for learners," he said.

While Viet Nam boasts its advantage in cheap labour, the risk for an economy depending on cheap labour is high. Cheap labour and manual labour means low quality and a lack of creativity. With such characteristics, Viet Nam would not be an attractive destination for projects with high technologies or large scale.

Whether our labourers could benefit from the coming AEC, or lose out, they've got to find their own answers about what to do now. — VNS

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