Cambodia Investment Review

COVID widens digital divide as Cambodia’s e-economy booms

COVID widens digital divide as Cambodia’s e-economy booms

Brian Badzmierowski

While COVID-19 has been a catalyst for digital transformation for Cambodia’s e-economy, a recent study suggests the overall benefits have been minimal and the pandemic has done more harm than good in narrowing the digital divide.

“COVID-19 is likely to have widened the digital divide between the rich and the poor and between urban and rural students,” the recently released Digital Skills Assessment Report found.

A panel discussion about the findings of the study was held on Tuesday and experts pointed to a lack of synergy between students, schools, and businesses that was exacerbated by limited digital infrastructure throughout the county.

The study was supported by the UNDP and the Ministry of Post and telecommunications and carried out by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) and the Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology (CADT).

The survey presents findings from over 200 businesses and over 1,000 students as well as testimonials from experts at public and private educational institutes and stakeholders in the digital economy to paint a picture of the digital landscape in Cambodia.

The businesses referred to Covid-19 as the “biggest challenge impacting operations and profits” and the report found that the pandemic’s impact on the adoption of digital technology had not been significant, with most gains coming in digital marketing and online sales.

As digital firms lament a lack of skilled workers, schools – especially those outside the capital — are still struggling to acquire proper technology and internet service.

According to a 2020 UNICEF study that surveyed over 15,000 students, caregivers, educators, and local authorities across 15 provinces, teachers and educational institutions across the country have low accessibility to ICT devices and stable internet.

The study found that 58 percent of respondents had access to electricity, 32 percent had access to the internet, and 23 percent had access to a computer or tablet.

Female students and rural students are disproportionally affected by this digital gap a UNDP representative told Cambodia Investment Review.

Rural and female youths have a lower digital literacy level than their counterparts, leaving them with employment disadvantages in the digital age. This raises concerns about the inclusivity of digital transformation and the risk of widening the gaps between the haves and have-nots,” the representative said.

Cambodia's e-economy
A 2020 UNICEF study shows a lack of digital infrastructure hindered distance learning during the pandemic.

More work needed to play digital catch-up with Cambodia’s e-economy

UNDP Resident Representative Alissar Chaker said while the Digital Assessment Report points to exponential growth and opportunities, much more work needs to be done to provide young people opportunities.

“Despite this optimistic outlook, the country has to overcome a number of structural challenges. Enrollment in STEM majors is relatively low and continues to be male-dominated. Students’ exposure to digital literacy has been limited and training on soft skills and new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence FinTech, and data science [have been] ad hoc and embryonic.”

“All of this occurs amid increased global demand for such skills which might further intensify and perpetuate skill shortages in Cambodia.”

During the panel discussion on the report Tuesday, Chaker said ensuring equal access to digital services throughout the country, particularly for females and the rural population, was critical to Cambodia taking full advantage of an increasingly digital economy.

From the business standpoint, firms predict demand for ICT-related skills will increase at an average rate of 30 percent over the next two years with growing demand for ICT sales professionals, software developers, digital marketers, web developers, graphic designers, and database managers.

The gap in soft skills is more prevalent than the gap in technical skills, according to the digital assessment report.

Cambodia ICT students are not rushing to fill this gap.

The report found that only 6.4 percent of student respondents were pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences or related fields. Most (42.7 percent) were enrolled in business courses, followed by foreign languages and education.

Phnom Penh dominates ICT education, with 12,335 students enrolled in ICT programs, pointing to a disparity in opportunity for urban versus rural students. Battambang ranked second on the list with 792 ICT students.

The report found university curricula lacking in soft skills training and advanced technological training. A CDRI representative at the discussion said most students, especially those from rural provinces, arrive without basic digital skills, requiring universities to first offer a semester-long course to bring them up to speed before tackling advanced tech subjects.

As previously reported in Cambodia Investment Review, local ICT educator 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.

Students cite competition in the labor market and a lack of work experience as bigger concerns than a lack of technical skills.

Soft skills are a missing link

The skills gap in tech may be overemphasized, however, with most firms citing a lack of communication skills, problem-solving skills, and language skills as more pressing needs.

ICT graduates, according to the report, see it differently. The report found that 80 percent of ICT graduates disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had not acquired the skills necessary to work.

They were much more concerned with competition in the labor market, with 75 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that the market was too competitive. Other major concerns were a lack of working experience and a lack of language skills.

Once graduates find work in the ICT field, professionals earn roughly 10 percent more than their non-ICT sector peers. The average salary for ICT graduates was reported as $450. However, salaries of over $1,000 were recorded for management roles. Software developers in the ICT sector averaged $695 per month while sales workers earned about $315 per month.

Currently, the most popular ICT jobs are software and application developers and analysts, ICT servicers, ICT managers, ICT technicians, and graphic designers.

Wages for ICT sector employees are about 10 percent higher than wages in non-ICT sectors.

Huawei Cambodia driving digital skills

A recent example of private sector assisting reskilling Cambodian students was the first “Huawei ICT competition in Cambodia” with support from Ministry of Education Youth and Sports, Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, and more than 10 local universities.

Students who join the competition will have a chance to obtain a certified professional certificate from Huawei and “have better opportunities to get the better job offer as well as better working conditions,” the company said.

Sovann Yao, CEO of Huawei Cambodia said the initiative will be a reliable and supportive partner for the universities and students to explore more about the latest technology, skill exchange, and enhance the hands-on skills for students including Cloud, AI, IoT, big data, and other cutting-edge technologies.

In addition, Huawei has highlighted plans to play a role in providing guidance and support following on from the recently launched “Digital Economy and Social Policy Framework of Cambodia 2021-2035” policy.

Sovann added that ICT technology will be a major driver in the country’s future economy under the “Cambodia Digital Economy and Society Policy Framework 2021-2035” framework.

Almost all of ICT education is focused on Phnom Penh.

The report’s recommendations

The authors of the report recommended that the government fund and equip universities – especially those in the provinces — with proper technological equipment to offer proper training. It also urged the government to ensure equal access to STEM education throughout the country while ensuring that secondary students have strong basic digital and math skills.

Recommendations for educational institutions included maintaining close contact with employers to discover skill needs, modernizing their curriculum, improving soft skill training, and forming apprenticeships with employers.

The private sector was urged to likewise offer internships, continue on-the-job training, and participate in dialogues to help define and alleviate the skill gap.

Chaker said the UNDP would continue to offer its services to help accelerate the digital growth of Cambodia.

“UNDP stands ready to build on the Digital Skills Assessment report and to support, with other financial and technical partners, the acceleration of digital transformation in Cambodia,” she said.

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