For Vietnam’s emerging work force, the leap from study to work can be challenging. As the economy changes and companies are forced to adapt, new graduates are finding ways to develop their skills beyond the classroom. Dana Filek-Gibson delves into Vietnam’s skills gap and what is being done to bridge new graduates with successful work opportunities. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Hau is lucky.

The 24-year-old graduated last year from Foreign Trade University, one of Vietnam’s most prestigious institutions, with a job offer already in hand. Two months before he officially received his diploma, Hau, who declined to give his full name, accepted a position in Pepsico’s marketing department as part of a competitive management training program. After a five-round interview process and several months of waiting, Hau now spends long hours at the office and has rotated through most of the company’s departments to get an overview of his employer’s inner workings. If all goes well, the program will fast track him toward a leadership position in the next several years.

“I’m a lucky person,” says Hau. “I found a job at a good company [with a] good salary and that is the position that I have wanted since I was a student.”

Luck and good timing may have played a part in Hau’s acceptance into such a rigorous training program, but the bulk of his success is the result of hard work. Throughout university, Hau held a series of odd jobs and internship positions, from teaching English to working as a bank teller. Though his resume may appear a bit eclectic, this diversity helped Hau to realise which career path was right for him.

“I had a lot of chances to interact [with different people] in many environments to find what I really like,” he explains.

But Hau is the exception rather than the norm. For many students in Vietnam, extracurriculars like part-time jobs and internship programs, skills workshops and after-school clubs are a rarity. Instead, academics take centre stage, so much so that more young Vietnamese are earning diplomas than ever before. But while HR solutions company Adecco Vietnam estimates that the country is churning out roughly a million new degree-holders each year, the youngest members of its work force are struggling to jumpstart their careers.

The World of Work

On the whole, Vietnam’s unemployment rate is relatively low compared to the regional average. According to Adecco Vietnam, in 2014 only 2.08 percent of working-age Vietnamese were without a job, compared with 4.3 percent across Southeast Asia. However, the company also reports that the bulk of Vietnam’s jobless are between the ages of 15 and 24.

Though Nicola Connolly, country manager of Adecco Vietnam, acknowledges that Vietnam must add another 1.5 million jobs per year to keep up with its growing number of university graduates and quell unemployment, for many companies the problem is not creating new work opportunities so much as filling the ones already available.

“There are jobs out there,” Connolly says. “I mean, everbody’s looking for full staff. The main issue is this sort of skills gap between what companies are actually looking for and then what is available in the market.”

The Skills Gap

According to the 2014 Global Talent Competitiveness Index, a joint study conducted by INSEAD Business School, Adecco and the Human Capital Leadership Institute released earlier this year, Vietnam ranked 75th out of 93 in terms of growing and retaining talent in its economy.

When it comes to technical skills, Connolly believes Vietnam is on par with the rest of the world, however a lack of soft skills development – things like teamwork, time management, communication and general adaptability – puts the country at a disadvantage. Last year, 62 percent of companies in Vietnam stated difficulty finding qualified candidates.

“For this generation that’s coming through, they’re lacking soft skills,” she says. “They have the theory, [are] educated, have a degree, but they don’t know how to work.” Connolly points out that university students who live at home and focus solely on their studies could graduate without ever having held a job.

“A lot of the time, at 23 [young Vietnamese] have never worked in any capacity whatsoever so they’re very naïve walking into the workplace,” she explains. “Whereas if you look at the western world you probably would have had a Saturday job where you’d worked for an agency, so by the time you go to university you’re sort of used to working with others.”

Dung Heather Nguyen, chairwoman of SEO Vietnam, a local leadership development program which combines internship opportunities with leadership training, community service and skills development, agrees. In addition to necessities like teamwork and time management, Nguyen points out another crucial skill which many young people struggle with: initiative.

“Proactiveness in terms of actively asking for guidance, actively asking for more work, actively finding out what needs to be done,” she explains. “I think the students are used to having things handed over to them…so the level of proactiveness is not up to the expectations of the employers.”

For both women, closing this skills gap is a feasible reality. Particularly in major cities like Hanoi and Saigon, there are ample opportunities for a proactive young person – like Hau, for example – to foster his or her soft skills. The missing link, it seems, is bringing together Vietnam’s ambitious youth with the foundations which might enable them to go out and explore new opportunities on their own.

Connolly also acknowledges that keeping up with the ever-changing demands of the economy can be tough in today’s job market.

“The jobs that are out there at the moment didn’t exist 10 years ago,” she says. Fields like information technology, for instance, and Saigon’s rich start-up community, are still very new and so do not have the same programs and opportunities as other, more traditional career fields might.

Still, Nguyen’s advice is to stay open-minded. In her experience, many young students complete university with a singular vision of where their degree can take them. In reality, the opportunities for young graduates are myriad, so it’s important to stay open to new ideas.

The Expectation Gap

For many young Vietnamese, that openness also includes a willingness to lower their initial expectations. When Adecco surveyed a group of 15- to 18-year-old Vietnamese students, one in four were confident they could secure employment prior to completing their studies, with the remaining students planning to find a career job within five months of graduation.

More often than not, Nguyen finds that these types of mismatched expectations contribute to the notion that there aren’t enough jobs available.

“It is a tough market out there but there’s a lot of opportunities as well and maybe in fields that people do not expect when they’re in college,” she says.

For Nguyen, the goal of SEO, which has been operating in Vietnam for six years, is to provide students with as much information as possible, not only to guide them toward the career path that’s right for them but also to temper some of those loftier expectations.

“What we’re trying to do is [say]: ‘Alright, you’re here, this is what you study already. This is what the market is. These are different fields or different careers that you can go into. These are the pros and cons that go with it. You go make the decision for yourself,” she says.

Bridging the Gap

Despite these challenges, more and more students are beginning to embrace the concept of internship training and other extracurricular activities. As the country moves forward, a widening skills gap could hinder Vietnam’s development, meaning that companies are now more keen to invest in their young trainees to ensure future success both in their fields and for the country. In addition to SEO’s range of for-profit and nonprofit internship partners, several international companies have begun to offer management training programs like Hau’s, while others are also taking on interns.

According to Connolly, this is beneficial not only to the students themselves but to the companies, who are often so focused on maintaining middle management talent that entry-level employees get left by the wayside.

“Companies will be very much promoting the hires of 18- to 24-year-olds in the market,” she says. “What we really recommend companies to do is to introduce internship programs to be able to plan for the future. Get them young and train them.”

Regardless of career path, it’s best to start early, says Trinh Ha Le, one of SEO Vietnam’s former participants. “For Vietnamese students, if you start a little bit early to prepare for the time you graduate you could have the chance to have a [job] offer,” she says.

Le, who took a semester off from university to work, was later offered a position by her previous employer. Though the company wasn’t very big or well-known, Le points out that often students are fixated on the prestige of an employer rather than the actual experience.

“I think what’s missing here is that [applicants] don’t really know about themselves,” she adds. “They think that ‘OK, it’s another exam so I just go through that so I can go have a very safe career path.’ But I think that in the Vietnamese market there are many more opportunities. Many of my friends they work very hard to enter to some management training programs but after like one year they don’t know what they’re going to do and they don’t really love the job, they just feel safe.”

Still, both Le and Nguyen encourage students not to worry. Even a few years down the road, many young Vietnamese are still figuring out their career paths and thanks to a dynamic economy, there are  to forge ahead.

“Don’t freak out,” says Nguyen. “Everyone is in the same boat.”