Great expectations for Yangon’s young job hunters

In the wake of Myanmar’s economic and political reforms, the job market is more complicated than ever, as some salaries soar while unemployment remains high.

More than 1500 people attended the Top Career Myanmar job fair organised by Forth Valley Concierge. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

More than 1500 people attended the Top Career Myanmar job fair organised by Forth Valley Concierge. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

Job hunter Ma Khine Thinzar Htun, 24, has set her sights high.

“I want to get paid $2,000 (about K2.57 million) a month,” she said at a job fair held recently at the Novotel Yangon. It is a 15 percent increase on her current salary and a bold statement in a country that recently ended months of negotiations on a proposal – strongly opposed by garment manufacturers – to raise the minimum wage to K3,600 for an eight-hour day.

Myanmar’s job market is nearly as complicated as its politics.

Economic reforms during the last three years have generated a surge of foreign investment in Myanmar and contributed to fierce competition in a job market squeezed by a shortage of professional and skilled technical labour. Salaries have soared.

“It’s basically a betting war (between companies),” said Jemin Popat, the managing director of MyJobs.com.mm, one of the country’s biggest online recruitment websites.

“The salary an employee can receive literally changes from month to month; it is simply unsustainable,” said Mr Popat.

Another reason for competition in the job market is a high youth unemployment rate.

Myanmar’s rate of four percent compares with 2.44 percent in Vietnam, 0.83 percent in Thailand and 0.3 percent in Cambodia, show figures from New York-based global data analysts, Trading Economics.

Mr Popat, a Briton with 10 years recruitment experience before he arrived in Myanmar, said the job market has made significant advances since he established the online recruitment agency in 2012. “It was total chaos in 2012 and 2013,” he said. Some job applications were posted and included hand-written resumes. Other job hunters were using apps on their mobile phones.

Mr Popat said that up until about two years ago, recruitment involved networks or print media advertising. Despite having recruitment budgets, companies were having difficulty finding candidates with the right qualifications and when they did, were willing to pay extra to fill vacancies.

Mr Popat said salary inflation became a serious issue when telecommunications providers Ooredoo and Telenor began operations in 2013. There was fierce competition between the two companies to recruit employees, especially technicians and sales staff.

“Nobody know what the right price for salary is anymore, it was out of control,” said Mr Popat. When clients sought his advice on salaries, he would often tell them that he knew what they should have been paid two months earlier but did not know what they would be paid in the next two months.

As an example of the situation he said an employee joined his company on a salary of $300 a month and after a year of work experience and skills training was being paid $1,000. Mr Popar described the job market from 2012 to 2013 as being “immature”, with no consistent salary bench marks.

The internet has had a huge impact on the job market, because it enabled information about vacancies to be accessed anywhere around the clock. This was one reason why many repatriates began entering the market from late 2013. Despite a limited talent pool there were many professionals competing for positions in human resources, marketing, finance and information technology.

However, international companies still have difficulties finding the right candidates and some are prepared to put hiring on hold until a suitable applicant can be found.

“Myanmar has gone a long way, but the talent pool is still not to international standards,” said Mr Popat. There is a gap between expectations and what is available, which means that job seekers and employers often have to compromise.

Another problem is job hopping, which can mean that companies upgrade the skills of employees, only to lose them to competitors. Mr Popat says companies have a responsibility to train employees, despite the risk of losing them. “They might leave when another company offers a $50 increase in salary, but it’s up to companies to provide a comfortable working environment and create a communication channel between managers and staff, but most important is to provide training and skills development,” he said.

A major challenge for the future will be filling positions requiring specialized skills, such as lawyers, health and safety managers for factories and specialists for the pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries, said Mr Popat. “It’s skills that have not been needed or developed in this country before,” he said.

A total of 100 job positions was offered by 8 companies from Japan, Singapore and Myanmar at a job fair at Yangon's Novotel Hotel. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

A total of 100 job positions was offered by 8 companies from Japan, Singapore and Myanmar at a job fair at Yangon’s Novotel Hotel. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

Employer feedback to myjob.com suggests that a free and fair election in November would be a boost for the job market, Mr Popat said. “They don’t feel like there will be a major change, maybe a few bumps, but they don’t feel like it’s going to fall of the cliff, but they are hedging their bets,” he said, explaining why some companies were adopting a cautious approach putting recruitment on hold ahead of the election.

Another reason for the high youth jobless rate is a lack of work skills among graduates.

“It’s common for university graduates to not know how to use Microsoft, Excel sheet or PPT [PowerPoint], and have limited English language skills” said Ma Yadanar Zaw, 32, the director of recruitment company Forth Valley Concierge, which has held three job fairs this year.

Ma Yandanar Zaw said Myanmar tended to be loyal and hard-working employees but few understood the concept of “smart working”.

Some were fulfilling their manager’s requests without thinking about what they were doing and others, despite being prepared to work hard, were failing job interviews.

Ma Yadanar Zaw believes this problem is due to an education system in which students answer questions rather than asking them and fail to develop communications skills. Other issues include a lack of support for preparing applications, career choice guidance and inadequate workplace skills training.

“Career centers does not exist in universities here,” she said, adding that the lack of career guidance and skills training meant that young graduates had no preparation to join the workforce and no idea of a career path.

The August 9 event at the Novotel Yangon attracted more than 1,500 job seekers, competing for 100 vacancies at eight companies from Myanmar, Japan and Singapore.

With her model good looks, Ma Khine Thinzar Htun stood out in the crowd. She has a medical degree from the University of Medicine, three years’ experience with an international pharmaceutical company and is the marketing manager in Yangon of a global retailer of cosmetics and home products made in France.

Ma Khine Thinzar Htun’s ideal job would be a challenging position with an employer who paid for her gym membership, provided capacity development, subsidised the cost of attending business school and offered a 40-hour week, eight fewer hours that the Myanmar standard.

Ma Khine Thinzar Htun has no doubt that she is justified seeking a salary of $2,000.“I have the ability, I have marketing sense, and a degree related to pharmaceuticals,” she said. Ma Khine Thinzar Htun’s confidence of achieving her salary objective is impressive.

The question is, how many other young job seekers are there like her in Myanmar?

By Ann Wang

By Ann Wang

Ann Wang is a award-winning visual journalist based in Yangon and a former photo editor of Frontier. She holds a photojournalism master degree from Boston University and grew up between Taiwan, New Zealand and China. She produces still images, long-term photo essays and videos with an interest in Asia and South East Asia. She is a regular contributor for The Stand, the Huffington Post and Jetstar Magazine.
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