Nguyen Van Duc graduated two years ago with a bachelor’s degree in economics
from one of Vietnam’s best universities.
Today, he earns about $250 a month as a motorbike taxi driver in Hanoi. Duc, whose parents took second jobs so he could be the only one of three children to attend college, is among thousands of Vietnamese college graduates who can’t land jobs in their chosen field, even though the nation’s unemployment
rate is just 2.3 per cent.
“In university, we only received heavy theoretical training and a lot of Ho Chi Minh’s ideology with communist party
history,” the 25-year-old said.
While Vietnam’s schools
equip students with basic skills for low-wage assembly-line work, its colleges
are failing to prepare youth for complex work. As wages rise and basic manufacturing leaves for less expensive countries, that may threaten the government’s ambition to attain middle-income
status, defined by the World Bank as per capita income
of more than $4,000, or almost twice the current rate.
“Countries that have been successful moving up to the next economic stage already had developed country levels of education
when they were middle-income
economies,” said Scott Rozelle, a Stanford University development economist. “Countries that didn’t have that collapsed or became stuck in the middle-income
Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan developed high-quality colleges
long before their economies needed a more educated workforce, he said. Conversely, economies such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico
slowed after reaching middle-income
status — in part because of insufficient investments in education, Rozelle said.
College students frequently spend much of their first two years learning about revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, socialism and party history at the expense of critical thinking and other skills expected by employers. The upshot: firms are reluctant to pay more for workers with degrees that often lack commensurate skills, says the Vietnam
Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The jobless rate among young people with university degrees is 17 per cent.
“You have private and foreign companies arriving that want better-skilled workers, quality managers, and engineers,” said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Ho Chi Minh City. “The middle class is expanding. Vietnam
families want better education.
So the pressure is on the political system to deliver.”
More parents are now sending their children overseas to study to improve their work prospects. The number of Vietnamese studying in Japan, grew more than 12-fold in the six years to May 2016, reaching about 54,000.