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Can Cambodia Become a Data Science Hub?

Brian Badzmierowski

“Can Cambodia do for data science what India did for IT?”

This is what Data U managing director Ioni Spinu wants to know.

Spinu posed the question to a panel of industry experts at an event hosted in partnership with Mekong Big Data and the American Chamber of Commerce to discuss the growing global need for data science skills and how Cambodia can help fill this gap.

According to Data U – a fast-track data science training program in Phnom Penh – the world market will require 11.4 million data professionals over the next five years.

However, as global demand grows by 29 percent year-on-year, supply is growing at just 14 percent.

Data U, which was founded in January 2020, plans to fill some of that gap by training young Cambodians and those left unemployed by Covid both in the technical and soft skills needed to get hired fast.

After completing a six-month course, Spinu says the school provides lifetime career support for the graduates – including a job guarantee – and added that the starting wage for graduates is between $750 and about $1,800 per month.

“Now more than ever, with these emerging new technologies, investing in talent and getting ready for I4.0 [Industrial Revolution 4.0] is absolutely crucial,” Spinu said.

“If you don’t invest in talent today, where do you think you’re going to be in the next three months to a year?” she asked of companies tuned into the webinar.

“I4.0” symbolises the fourth industrial revolution, a widely adopted term for the automation of almost everything using high tech, a trend that was sped up immensely by the onset of Covid-19.

Cambodia has been preparing its next-generation for the upcoming Fourth Industrial Revolution by promoting its students’ robotic skills on both the local and international stages.

As the pandemic spread, classes and work meetings shifted online, the Cambodian government relied on new tech to identify and assist the needy in its emergency cash transfer programme, and developing tech for Covid-19 contact tracing became paramount.

Data became king and with the digital rush already underway, the panel agreed that Cambodia’s young and increasingly digitally savvy population would stand to benefit with the proper guidance.

Problem-solving and critical thinking skills were seen as key factors for employers. Data U

Chris McCarthy, CEO of digital marketing firm MangoTango and secretary of AmCham, said some of his employees already perform data analytics work for international firms, and added that the Kingdom’s young and smart workforce could indeed capitalize on the growing demand for these skills.

“Finding skilled data experts is essential. From a simple shop doing inventory management to predictive modeling for fraud, every business in the world relies on data,” he said.

“The amount of data in the world is doubling every two years were definitely going to need more data analytic experts to help sift through that data,” he added.

Joseph Telfer, Data U Managing Partner revealed the results of a study of more than 200 Cambodian businesses which pointed to a need for up-skilling the nations’ workforce to help address this wave of data.

According to the survey, about 20 percent of companies said they had the skills and people needed to achieve their three-to-five-year goals and almost 40 percent said the market was moving faster than skills are being produced.

Almost 30 percent of companies said that without providing investment to develop new skills for I4.0, they will lose market share to their competitors, including to those based in other countries.

The respondents said the main soft skills that needed improving were critical thinking, problem-solving, and project management skills, while the main hard skills were social media management and digital marketing.

The early results for Data U graduates have been successful.

The Royal Group, represented at the meeting by Wing’s Human Resource Director Shenghai Lao, was the first company to hire Data U students last year, with graduates being hired by Wing, Cellcard and EZECOM.

Chandy Ot, Country Human Resources Director of Coca Cola said his company had outsourced data work to Microsoft previously and had no official data scientists or analysts on board, despite the massive amounts of data-driven decisions being made by the company.

Ot said he recognised the need for upskilling and would consider hiring a DataU graduate if a job became available.

The school is open for anyone to apply, although there are somewhat stringent standards.

Advanced English-speaking is required and applicants must pass SQL, English, and maths pre-assessment quizzes. They must also possess good “abstract and critical thinking.”

Digital and social media marketing skills were seen as the preferred hard skills to improve upon by employers. Data U

The typical tuition is $6,000 and can be paid upfront or through a loan repayment plan. Businesses likewise typically pay a $6,000 placement fee to hire Data U graduates.

USAID recently granted $300,000 to the program, reducing this fee for eligible students and businesses to $3,000 each.

Part of the focus of the USAID partnership will be bringing more women into tech, Sinu said.

As previously reported by ADB, females are more likely to face job displacement than men due to the effects of Covid while tech is a male-dominated industry in the Kingdom.

According to Sisters in Code, the first Cambodian all-female coding club: “Only seven percent of female students in Cambodia choose to study technology-related subjects, and only 30 percent of those who graduate end up with jobs in the field of IT.” 

Currently, Sinu estimates that about 40 percent of Data U’s students are female and she’d like to raise that number to 50 percent or more.

Data U’s ultimate goal is to build an inclusive data professional community that spreads like wildfire and grows into a regional and international powerhouse.

“We would like Cambodia to not just be recognised for Angkor Wat, but also for its data skills,” Sinu said.

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