Magnus Saemundsson (right) with Pierre Tami (left) and Cambodia’s Minister of Education (centre).


‘Competing with other countries with low wages will not be enough.’ A plea for high-quality skills training in Cambodia.

Magnus Saemundsson has been working in education for nearly 40 years. As the Sida Education Specialist in Cambodia, Mr. Saemundsson has been a key supporter of the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia as it trains Cambodian youth and women, creates jobs, and reduces poverty in the country.

Mr. Saemundsson graciously took the time to respond to Shift 360’s questions about vocational training, the current Cambodian context, and why skills training and the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia are crucial for the future of Cambodia.


The following interview with Magnus Saemundsson was edited for clarity and length. 

Shift 360: From your perspective as the Sida Education Specialist, what are the primary challenges and opportunities regarding skills and training in Cambodia?

Magnus Saemundsson (MS): 

Recent reports on the economic development of Cambodia foresee that the balance between different economic sectors will change drastically in the coming decades.  This means that jobs for unskilled or semi-skilled agricultural and garment workers, which accounted for most jobs in the past, will be fewer. These economic sectors will not drive future job growth.

You will see in the next 12-15 years that the share of agricultural employment will go down from its current share of around 40 percent to around 20 percent.

The challenge is to identify the sources of new jobs. Increased automatization and the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution will change the manufacturing industry, including the garment and footwear sector.

Competing with other countries with low wages will not be enough, especially if employers face significant skills shortages. 

We know from different studies that Cambodia’s employers already are particularly dissatisfied with the skills that the labour force offers.

Shift 360: What is the solution for Cambodia moving forward?

MS: Cambodia needs to aim at diversifying the economy, especially moving into higher value exports, including high value tourism.

Moving up existing value chains and into new value chains will support the creation of inclusive and better jobs both in the short and medium term, but there is an urgent need to prepare for the future of works.

Shift 360: How does Cambodia’s current education system fit into this situation?

MS: The education system will need to be updated to build the right skills for the next generation. This is a huge undertaking as there is a need for profound quality development in general education, technical and vocational training and in higher education.

Today’s current workers will need to upgrade their skills while working and be prepared to change professions, either through on-the-job training or short training courses to learn the skills that will be needed in a technologically-enhanced work place.

Shift 360: What is your role and what overall goals and objectives are you pursuing as the Sida Education Specialist?

MS: Sida is a government agency working on behalf of the Swedish government, with the mission to reduce poverty in the world. Currently Sida in Cambodia works within three main areas, human rights and democratic development; education; and climate change and environment. Of these, education is the least problematic, but at the same time, fundamental. Education is one of the prerequisites for democratic development and increased respect for human rights. Education and knowledge creation, including in-country research, is also necessary for the country to tackle the challenges arising from the climate change. Education and skills training are also vital for a sustainable economic growth.

My role in Sida in Cambodia is to support different initiatives to increase quality in teaching and learning, in the education and skills area from pre-school to higher education! We work closely with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, different development partners, NGOs and the private sector. As an external development organisation, Sida will leave Cambodia sooner or later, and so the goal of our support to education is that when we leave we have contributed to the development of quality education systems that are accessible, equitable and sustainable.

Shift 360: Do you have any parallel experience or lessons learned from other countries like Cambodia?

MS: Apart from working in Sweden for a long time as a teacher and in the education ministry and governmental agencies, I have experience working with broad education support in Laos and Bangladesh and as an expert on education and labour market development in Tanzania and other African countries.

Shift 360: Could you comment on the validity of the Private-Public Partnership approach and any other examples you are aware of?

MS: Many countries struggle with organising high-quality skills training systems. One of the challenges is flexibility and keeping up with changes in the different economic sectors and with technical development.

Three important components for successful skills development system are strategic framework, system oversight and service delivery. The strategy framework and systems oversight must be the responsibility of the local government with close cooperation with the industry/economic sectors. However, the actual service delivery, the training of future employees is, in some cases, best delivered in a school environment. But, some skills are not practical to be taught in that context – they must be trained in an on-the-job environment.

While the general education system has a role to play in preparing the future labour force in Cambodia, it can only address part of the challenge. Changing the composition of the labour force — moving from the current stage of labour force development which comprises a largely unskilled or semiskilled workforce will take time.

It is therefore crucial to engage the private sector to provide, guide and advocate for skills development.

Skills training and skills development is not meaningful if it is not constructed to fill the needs of the labour market – it must be demand-driven. 

Demand-driven skills development requires political will, commitment from the private sector, labour market dialogue and a quality education system for lifelong learning.

The most successful skills training systems, including the Germanic apprentice system and South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore’s systems, have in common that they are organized on the principle of close public-private-partnerships. These PPPs come in different models and with different division of the tasks involved.

Shift 360: How do you see the ACAC as a good fit for Sida’s long-term goals of poverty reduction and skills/jobs for Cambodian youth?

MS: The main reasons behind Swedish support for ACAC are related to the challenges of creating a sustainable vocational system in Cambodia that can contribute to the development of a labour market with decent jobs in the short and medium term.

The reported skills shortages in Cambodia, and the main challenge to sustainable economic growth and social development, are to a large degree the result of a weak vocational training system, which continues to face numerous reputational, financial, regulatory and operational challenges.

Attracting students to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is a challenge, as Cambodians have a negative perception of vocational training as ‘second rate’ education compared with general secondary education or attending university. Others do not want to give up work to attend training. Cambodia has the lowest relative number of students enrolled in TVETs, both upper secondary and tertiary, across Southeast Asia. Most of the vocational training is provided in the form of short courses and many are community based to support households in poverty. In many cases, they operate without the involvement of the private sector. Some economic sectors, such as banking, depend on internal training of staff as newly recruited staff don’t have the skills or knowledge needed.

The ACAC is one of the first skills training institutions in Cambodia that has high quality as its benchmark, this means the training should be up to the highest international standards. This aspiration – to aim at quality – is needed in all economic sectors that have the ambition to move up the value chain.

The high ambitions of ACAC should be seen as an inspiration for other training institutions.

Another reason for our support for the ACAC is the urgent need for Cambodia to establish models for public-private-partnership in vocational education and training. Without solid PPPs Cambodia will not be able to move into a diversified economy competing in high value chain production. ACAC is a pioneer PPP in vocational education and training and establishing the institution has not been easy sailing, but it is a very interesting model for how high-quality vocational training institutions can cooperate with the private sector and with the relevant ministries.

The students coming out of ACAC will be instrumental in the efforts for the tourism industry to move up the value chain. This will lead to increased job opportunities in the sector and will also enable the creation of well-paying jobs. 

Shift 360: What is your hope for Cambodia five years from now, 10 years from now, and how does skills training/education play a part in achieving those dreams?

MS: My hope for Cambodia in five years is that there will be profound change in the political atmosphere and that there will be a new generation of political leaders emerging that are not stuck in the post-1979 rhetoric, that will hopefully aim for rule of law and decreased corruption. Another hope is that the exciting young artists that we see now in Cambodia will gain the space and support they deserve. The creative and cultural industries have a huge potential but need support and not least a cultural tolerance from the government authorities.

In ten years, I hope that the emerging new economic sectors will be taking off, creating new and better jobs. There already are a number of small enterprises in the ICT sector and very talented young programmers and other digital experts. There is a need for support for emerging entrepreneurs and support for small businesses to become bigger enterprises.

In a decade, hopefully other sectors such as tourism and agriculture have moved up in the value chain creating new decent jobs.

Without a profound investment in people – investment in human resources in the form of quality education and training this will not be successful. 

Shift 360: Why are skills training and job creation important for poverty reduction?

MS: Nine out of ten jobs in developing countries, including Cambodia, are provided by private-sector companies. But most employers report difficulties in filling vacant positions due to the unavailability of adequately trained staff. This is particularly true in Cambodia. As job opportunities for unskilled workers in sectors such as agriculture, garments and tourism become scarcer due to technological development, unemployment and poverty will increase if the labour force does not have access to better and relevant skills training.

Without investment in skills training, both general TVET and high-quality training, new jobs will not be created in emerging economic sectors and other sectors will not move up the value chain.

Without investing in people, Cambodia will continue to lag behind neighbouring countries, unable to compete. Cheap labour is not a winning concept in the long run.

Magnus Saemundsson has been working with education issues for almost 40 years. First as a teacher in Swedish primary and secondary schools and lecturer at teacher training colleges for more than a decade, and later as an expert at Swedish government agencies of education. Saemundsson is an expert on curricula development at the Swedish National Agency for Education and senior education expert at the Swedish Ministry for Education in Brussels working with education development and cooperation within the European Union. Later as a senior education advisor at Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency, particularly working with Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh.

He is currently working with Swedish education support, skills development and labour market issues in Cambodia at the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh.