By Justin Higginbottom
Tung Pham wants to work in his country, Vietnam, but in an international firm that can pay him well. For that, his best bet isn’t his schooling in Vietnam, but the international affairs degree he has earned at George Washington University. To further bolster his chances, he now plans to return to the U.S. for a master’s degree. Vietnam shouldn’t complain.
For the better part of two decades now, Vietnam has experienced white-hot economic growth, attracting investment that once would have gone elsewhere. Riding on a low-wage and mostly low-skilled workforce, the country’s gross domestic product increased by 3,303 percent between 1990 and 2016, the fastest growth in Southeast Asia. That boom has enabled Vietnam to also emerge as a growing strategic player in the Indo-Pacific region, courted by countries like the U.S., India and Japan. But with the country’s economy moving up the value chain, its education system is failing to provide the skilled workforce needed for industry, spawning a challenge that threatens to derail Vietnam’s growth. It isn’t the communist state, but the private sector and individual families that are coming to the rescue.
University graduates in the country have the highest rates of unemployment, at 17 percent — far higher than the national unemployment rate of just over 2 percent. According to experts, that discrepancy is at least partially because of a skills gap. Students leaving higher education programs might have enough know-how for low-wage factory work, but not for the higher-paying jobs they’re chasing. Big tech employers in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, especially foreign companies, are making the calls. And they aren’t calling graduates. As salaries rise, so too do the prospects of more low-skilled jobs leaving the country — for instance, in manufacturing.
But Vietnam’s youth, their families and industry aren’t sitting back. Poor English skills are often a challenge in seeking well-paid jobs, so parents are sending their children to private language centers to supplement their formal education. While some productivity gap between employer needs and the skill set of the available workforce is common across the world, Vietnam also has a peculiar challenge, suggests Thi Tuyet Tran, a researcher at the Institute for Employment Research in Germany. Students are taught from a young age to be obedient and aren’t encouraged enough to think critically, she says. That has led to a dearth of the outside-the-box thinking employers rely on. To counter that challenge, graduates are attending private training centers on information technology or other skills.