When Than Myint (47) took a tricycle rickshaw from the bazaar to her home in Yangon, she fell into conversation with the driver, who turned out to have graduated from university last year. The 22-year-old told her that jobs were hard to find, even with a degree.
Only arduous work like rickshaw-pedalling was available. “That’s why I have to do this work,” he said.
Than Myint said it was heartbreaking for her to see so few job opportunities for young graduates. But the problem is widespread.
“I was shocked when I saw a classified advisement in front of a huge house. It said only a graduate is qualified for a job as a security guard,” said Yangon taxi driver U Thar Htet (54).
Myanmar has around 616,500 students in higher education, according to 2009 figures, but chances of secure employment once they graduate are poor, and private sector salaries are low.
The government does not publish figures on graduate unemployment, but the problem is now being openly aired.
“I have learned that most of the graduates here are jobless,” National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Su Kyi told people in Waa Tin Ka village, 30 kilometres south of Yangon where she has been campaigning for a seat in by-elections that take place on 1 April.
“I believe that we [the National League for Democracy] should consider as a first step to provide job opportunities for people who have graduated, not yet graduated, middle-age people and old people,” she said on 11 February.
Investment and jobs
With the government appearing to be slowly breaking out of the isolation brought about by 50 years of military rule, Myanmar president U Thein Sein is relying on new foreign investment to create more job opportunities for graduates.
“Investors are eyeing the country,” the president told teachers and students in Sagaing, in the north-west of the country, during the opening of the Arts and Science University on 11 February.
“Efforts should be made to attract investment and to create jobs. When factories are mushrooming, skilled labour, intellectuals and the intelligentsia will be in high demand.”
The government has frequently blamed Western economic sanctions against Myanmar for high unemployment. But Myanmar observers say the situation has been difficult for graduates for most of the 50 years that the military government has been in power.
There are fewer public sector jobs available and students say nepotism and corruption are rife in public sector recruitment. Some students claim that not just contacts, but also bribes, are needed to secure good jobs.
Lifting economic sanctions
Some graduates are becoming more hopeful that things will change after the April election. During a visit in February a European Union delegation hinted that it might lift economic sanctions if enough progress is made on democratisation in the country. Other nations like the US, which first imposed sanctions in 1993 on human rights grounds, may follow.
“This is a transitional time in Myanmar and I wish the Americans and others could lift sanctions, then there would be more job opportunities’, said Zar Li Htun (21), who graduated last year with a degree in geology from Dagon University in Yangon. She is a clerk earning 60,000 kyats (US$75) a month, far below a graduate’s salary of around 150,000 kyats.
“The money is not enough,” she told University World News. But she added that she feels lucky to have got a job right away, as many of her fellow graduates are still seeking work.
Hnin Wutte Yi Phyoe (21), who graduated with a degree in chemistry last year from Mawlamyine University, also considers herself lucky as she joined the family business. “My parents sell clothes downtown. I’m not interested in selling things. But as everybody knows, jobs are very scarce in Myanmar.”
Meanwhile, with the NLD beginning to bring up the problem of unemployment, there is more pressure on the government to be seen to be acting to improve job prospects. Even if sanctions are lifted, government action will be needed to get graduates and others into jobs.
During a recent session of the Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house of parliament, speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, in response to a question on how the government was handling unemployment, said it would provide up-to-date labour market information, adopt measures to link job opportunities and jobseekers, develop strategies to create job opportunities and access to foreign labour markets, and train job seekers to help them land a job.
But President U Thein Sein has also said graduates should not rely solely on academic degrees and must develop other skills.
Some observers say the country’s university degrees are not geared towards a modern job market and the way many disciplines are taught is simply out of date.
Students mainly enroll in traditional academic subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics or Myanmar literature and are not trained for professions, making it difficult to find jobs that match their degrees. Even university teaching jobs are scarce.
Graduate Zar Li Htun said: “There are no jobs available for those who finish their first degrees with a science major.” And Htet Htet (22), a law graduate from Dagon University, described her degree as “just a piece of paper”.
“There is a big difference between the types of degrees students are graduating with and what the market wants,” U Aye Kyaw, managing director of MHR Human Resource Development, told the Myanmar Times recently.
“There are too few jobs related to the subjects students are completing, and the government cannot create enough jobs for them.”
He added that universities should be allowed to offer subjects needed for the job environment. “Businesses want journalists, human resources and marketing graduates, but universities do not teach these subjects,” he said.
Yet even engineering graduates cannot find appropriate work. Kyaw Thu Han (25) graduated in marine engineering from Myanmar Maritime University in 2009. He has had to work in a variety of non-engineering jobs, including as an interpreter and editor for an environmental NGO.
“Even engineering jobs are low paid. I'm planning to go to Singapore soon,” he told University World News.
Some three million people from Myanmar currently work abroad, often illegally. According to anecdotal evidence, many Myanmar graduates work in blue-collar jobs in countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
Even if Western sanctions are not lifted quickly, new development projects, infrastructure spending and investment growth from other Asian countries could improve graduate job prospects. The World Bank and other multilateral lending agencies like the Asian Development Bank have indicated that they are preparing to return to Myanmar.
Jobs may not have trickled down to Myanmar’s disheartened graduates yet, but recent developments point to improvements to come.
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