Vietnamese youth on the threshold of ASEAN labor competition

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Students at a job fair in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach 

It won't be long until the 10 ASEAN member states turn the region into a single market.

The ASEAN Economic Community becomes official in 2015, when the region and its over-500 million people will be an international community in which goods, production assets, people and capital can move freely across borders.

It means Vietnamese laborers will have to compete with those from other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, making human resources development a crucial task for the country.

However, it seems Vietnamese universities are still ill-prepared for such rivalry.

Hua Minh Tuan, vice rector of the University of Finance-Marketing, said he had heard about aspirations of "broad and deep integration" in Southeast Asian region by 2015, but the Ministry of Education and Training had yet to give any instructions to universities about detailed plans to prepare for the integration.

Tran Dinh Ly, chief of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Agriculture and Forestry's Training Department, said the university did not have plans to improve the quality of education and training after 2015.

Communication and other skills

Vietnamese students themselves are mostly unaware of "ASEAN integration" and the need to study foreign languages.

Nguyen Thi Nga of the HCMC University of Technology will graduate in 2016. She said she has only "average" English skills, and does not have plans to study another foreign language.

Nguyen Van Binh, Nga's schoolmate, said he only signed up for  his first low-level English class when he entered his third year of university.

According to many educators and employers, limited English command is among the biggest challenges for Vietnamese students.

Only around 60-70 percent of students in the University of Finance-Marketing are able to communicate in English, according to Tuan, the vice rector.

Nguyen Thi Van Anh, managing director of Navigos Search, said the foreign language skills of Vietnamese workers are much worse than those of workers from other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines.

Masaki Yamashita, general director of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsibishi (UFJ) in HCMC, told Vietweek that Vietnamese students have good knowledge of their major, but they have difficulties turning the knowledge into work skills and applying the knowledge in reality.

Most foreign companies are not pleased with Vietnam's workforce because Vietnamese people generally lack communication and teamwork skills, he said.

Anh added that Vietnamese workers also lack other soft skills such as presentation, team spirit, listening and expression, but they are usually afraid to ask questions and thus cannot learn much from their colleagues or bosses.

Meanwhile, Tran Anh Tuan, deputy director of a center that forecasts workforce demand and labor market information in HCMC, said students were unaware of what employers need from them.

He cited a survey of 5,000 students from three universities in the city as saying that students think that professional knowledge is the most important thing when applying for a job, followed by foreign language and IT skills, soft skills and practice.

In fact, employers regard soft skills as equally important as professional standards, he said.

According to some educators, culture and education are the roots of the problem. The Vietnamese education system does not focus on teaching students to reason with the realities of the outside world, they say. 

Better late than never

Experts say Vietnamese universities should do everything they can to improve the quality of training; otherwise their graduates will be unable to compete to find jobs.

Nguyen Duc Nghia, deputy director of the HCMC chapter of Vietnam National University, said universities should build English curricula to receive students from other countries, so that Vietnamese students will find the motivation to compete (even when they are still at school).

He added that Vietnamese universities should join associations of regional universities to engage in student exchange programs, which may provide opportunities for Vietnamese students to survey the labor markets of other countries.

Vu Hai Quan, vice rector of HCMC University of Science, said his school is planning to develop international cooperation programs and build quality assessment frameworks under international standards.

Ho Thanh Phong, rector of HCMC International University, said universities should keep regular contact with companies, especially foreign companies, to update their recruitment plans and demands, and thus adjust training methods.

Most experts agreed that foreign language skills would open the door for Vietnamese students to the world.

Apart from English, workers should learn the language of the country they plan to work in, they said.

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