For Many Lao Women, Technical Trades are the New “White-Collar” Jobs

Big dreams: women in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are working to redefine the cultural perceptions of technical and vocational work. Photo: ADB
Big dreams: women in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are working to redefine the cultural perceptions of technical and vocational work. Photo: ADB

By Theonakhet Saphakdy

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the reputation of technical and vocation jobs is improving due to enhanced skills and increased incomes.

In Lao society, most people prefer high-value professions and working in an office. Vocational work is often seen as having a lower status. It's no surprise that parents want their children to get into a university and hope their children get a white-collar job in order to assimilate in and maintain privileged status.

Following this trend, many farmers have sold their property to support their children’s college education.  However, their dreams do not always come true. Many are disappointed because they cannot find a job after graduating from university.

Increasingly, families and policy makers in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are discovering that there are many opportunities for good-paying jobs in the vocational and technical sector, outside of traditional white-collar employment.

  Technical job opportunities emerging in unexpected places

Agriculture is one such option. It is a significant aspect of the country's economy, contributing 16 percent of gross domestic product. About 72 percent of the labor force is engaged in farming. This provides agribusiness opportunities as well as other potential careers. Some of these farmers need agricultural mechanics to maintain and repair cultivation equipment. 

Agriculture can also be linked to tourism, with food being supplied to hotels, resorts and restaurants.  Farms can also be operated as resorts, sometimes called agritourism. There are also connections to health care, with herbs and traditional medicine in demand. The education sector plays a part as well with schools and training centers needed for students to explore areas such as seed and fertilizer production.

With one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia, there are also opportunities in construction and in the automotive industry.  According to the Department of Public Works and Transport, the number of vehicles in the country is increasing by about 10 percent a year, with about 1.7 million new automobiles and motorcycles nationwide. Repair services will be a growing need in years to come.

The country also has a growing service industry that is creating new jobs. More people are working in factories and other jobs and they do not have time to prepare food themselves. The number of tourists in the country is increasing as well. These all provide opportunities for workers in restaurants, food service and the tourism industry. And with people moving to the city, where jobs are available, accommodation is needed. The hotel industry needs workers to help meet this need.

  For technical workers, it’s all about training and expertise

Despite the emerging opportunities, why are jobseekers still often unable to find work? Why aren’t more jobs being created in these areas? For one, workers need to upgrade their knowledge and skills through technical and vocational education and training. College graduates can gain knowledge by attending short course training in specific areas, while high school graduates can apply to study in technical training institutions. From a development point of view, this kind of training supports economic growth by increasing the productivity and income of workers.

The Asian Development Bank is working with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to fill this gap, in part through the $25 million Second Strengthening Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) project, which ran from September 2017 to December 2020. Building on the lessons of a previous project, the initiative supported efforts to realign technical and vocational education and training with current and future labor market needs.

This was done by upgrading teaching and learning environments at eight vocational colleges; strengthening teachers’ competencies to deliver student-centered practical training in skill areas that are in demand; and improving the management of colleges and fostering an environment that demonstrates the principles of entrepreneurship and promotes involvement of companies and communities.

The project, which specifically targeted women for assistance, has increased poor and disadvantaged students’ access to technical and vocational training through direct stipends and more dormitory space at colleges. It also worked to improve the public image of technical and vocation training and enhanced understanding of training opportunities among youth, their parents, and communities. 

As more people, particularly women, consider technical and vocational jobs, the status of these professions will improve. Innovative approaches to creating new, good paying jobs will help this process. It will not be long before students and parents are proud to have a vocational or technical career.