With the relatively rapid opening of Myanmar to the international economy following the country’s 2011 liberalisation, the positive benefits for the domestic and international business communities in that country has oft been trumpeted.
However, there are of course notable side-effects to this change that are, for the people of Myanmar, more harmful than not. In particular, one of these addresses the wages offered by companies to trained professionals, and its effects on the Myanmar job market.
As with any country that has been closed off from the outside world, the socialist regime of General Ne Win and the subsequent SLORC administration did more than destroy hints of democracy and rule of law in Myanmar. Rather, they reduced Yangon (then Rangoon) from a shining beacon of educational excellence in Southeast Asia, to a literal backwater.
In established disciplines, the people of Myanmar were no longer learning at the same level as their regional or international counterparts, and in fields like IT and programming there was virtually no education available. The results of this were apparent; when Myanmar opened up in 2011, its own domestic workforce could not match the skills or abilities of those people (either from Myanmar or foreign) who had studied abroad.
Companies proceeded, and have continued, to respond to this by offering significantly higher salaries for more-skilled employees. And while this is a logical trend, it ignores that the educational system of Myanmar, while improving, will continue to lag behind the needs for talented employees for quite some time.
As such, the responsibility ultimately falls on the company, with no real cheap options available. While Myanmar employees may be willing to work for less than their foreign colleagues, said company must then be willing and able to train these individuals, which costs time, if not money. Similarly, there are likely very few foreign professionals willing to work for wages that Myanmar employees might find more acceptable.
Ultimately, until the education system of Myanmar reaches a level where it can compete with the neighbouring ASEAN states, let alone on a global level, the main source of skilled labor in the service sector will come from a number of sources.
First, as has been seen so vibrantly in the current Yangon business community, the number of Myanmar citizens who have returned from abroad. From Singapore to the United States, the Myanmar diaspora has proven to be willing and able to take what they’ve learned abroad to aid the country of their birth.
Similarly, there are sizable expatriate groups that have sought to provide international skills to the Myanmar business and economic communities. As an example, the international student business AIESEC provides companies access to young professionals from over 125 countries; many of whom have the ability to not only meet the needs of the Myanmar business world, but also to impart these skills upon local employees.
Gregory Arnold is a recent graduate of George Washington University. He is currently serving as the Sales Director for AIESEC Myanmar.