The apprentice that gets hired: A vocational training success story in Myanmar

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 11 December 2015

Photo supplied by the Centre for Vocational Training
Photo supplied by the Centre for Vocational Training

Myanmar has a large workforce comprising more than 30 million people, of whom half are aged between 15 and 29, according to World Bank data. Yet while the country’s potential productivity is vast, it remains largely untapped. Despite significant gains made in the years since Myanmar’s reform process began, the decades-long legacy of an underfunded education system remains challenging for young people seeking gainful employment. University enrollment rates stand at 11 percent and just 1.7 percent of those aged between 16 and 19 are engaged in some form of vocational or technical skills training; while less than four percent of Myanmar’s total population is undertaking training, according to figures from the International Labour Organisation, Asian Development Bank and 2014 census data. These figures in no way reflect a collective lack of ambition or drive: the barriers to accessing credible qualifications remain insurmountable for many. And at the same time, Myanmar’s opening up to the world has led to an ever-increasing demand for skilled workers.

Since 2002, the Centre for Vocational Training (CVT) in Yangon has been working hard to help young people, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to overcome the many barriers to learning and improve their employment prospects.

CVT was established by Swiss citizen Max O. Wey, who came to Myanmar as a Red Cross delegate with a three year tenure, after spending most of his adult life in Asia and Africa. Mr Wey became keenly aware of the need for young people in Myanmar to acquire vocational training and a corresponding lack of opportunities. As the years passed, Mr Wey came to regard Myanmar as his home and its people as his family, according to CVT Director Daw Yin Yin Aye, who has been with CVT since its humble beginnings. Mr Wey remained in Myanmar until two weeks before his death in 2008.

“In the past, vocational training in Myanmar was scattered across a number of different ministries, which meant that no one ministry was really onboard to develop such programmes,” Daw Yin Yin Aye said.

Students at CVT’s learning centre in Yangon
Students at CVT’s learning centre in Yangon

Using his knowledge of the Swiss dual education system, Mr Wey launched the first vocational training class in Yangon in December 2002. Today, CVT teaches 30 different classes and offers diploma courses to aspiring cabinet makers, electricians, metal workers, commercial assistants and hotel and gastronomy assistants. It has worked in collaboration with the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation since 2013. Further progress was made when CVT signed an MOU with the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Social Security and Welfare, which streamlined the qualifications process. CVT now also serves as an assessment centre for Myanmar’s National Skills Standard Authority (NSSA) for five different trades and professions.

Swiss teachers work with their Myanmar counterparts at CVT to adapt a Swiss curriculum that suits local market needs. Swiss textbooks are translated from English to Myanmar and exam papers are marked by Swiss teachers, each of whom work on a volunteer basis for CVT. While first and second year course books are in the Myanmar language, every course book produced by CVT is bilingual, which gives students the opportunity to learn English should they be inclined to do so. Hospitality students switch to studying exclusively in English in their second and third years, due to the international nature of the industry.

Boosting the local skills force

Photo supplied by CVT
Photo supplied by CVT

Approximately 20 percent of the businesses involved with CVT are foreign-owned, while the vast bulk are locally owned, Daw Yin Yin Aye said. However the ratio is shifting in the hotel sector rather rapidly due to the growing number of international hotels setting up a presence in Myanmar.

“There are also many international tourism companies interested in our programmes. However we actively seek to involve mostly local tour companies so that we can contribute to building skills domestically,” said Daw Yin Yin Aye.

Priority is also given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We receive a lot of applications to take part in CVT programmes because young people are eager to have well-recognised, Swiss qualifications. However when we assess admission profiles, we give priority to disadvantaged youths. We do this because we know we can change young peoples’ lives by providing vocational educational courses,” she said.

Earn while you learn

Students spend one day a week learning theory at CVT, which is based at the Myanmar Red Cross building in Yangon. The remaining four days are spent at a workplace where they hone their practical skills.

“Students can discuss problems that they cannot solve at a workplace when they come to CVT, such as why a particular piece of wood being used to make a cabinet is shrinking,” said Daw Yin Yin Aye.

Those in the commercial sector earn an average apprentice wage of K80,000 per month. Those who perform particularly well often receive increment salary increases, which can reach up to K110,000.
Daw Yin Yin Aye said that many students take pride in being able to contribute to their family’s income.

Photo supplied by CVT
Photo supplied by CVT

“Although it is a small income, they are nonetheless making a contribution to their families. The majority of CVT students say that they give at least half their earnings to a family member, such as their mother or an aunt.”

In the current 2015-16 financial year, CVT has been providing training to 500 apprentices and 100 E4Y students, the latter of whom are under-privileged school drop-outs aged between 11 and 15.

“E4Y students can read and write but cannot continue their studies due to various personal circumstances, which can include illness or the death of a parent.”

Although primary schooling itself is free of charge in Myanmar, the associated costs of daily bus fares, uniforms, school bags, umbrellas and meals can prove cumbersome enough for some families to have to discontinue their children’s education at a young age.

CVT Director Daw Yin Yin Aye
CVT Director Daw Yin Yin Aye

“Some families don’t have enough money to put food on the table – school expenses are just out of the question,” said Daw Yin Yin Aye.

CVT aims to break the cycle of poverty being passed down from one generation to the next. Approximately 120 candidates are selected from social welfare institutions, including a Yangon hostel that houses 200 orphans and disabled youth. Funds are provided to cover meals, travel and the like.

Proven track record

Daw Yin Yin Aye said that most apprentices remain with the company once their training period is complete. While some companies may only select half or so of the apprentices they take on, CVT students are provided with CV writing assistance and have ample time to find another employer before the apprenticeship period ends, she added.

Marketing research company MMRD conducted a baseline study recently, which found that 98 percent of apprentices go on to find stable work, Daw Yin Yin Aye said.

Furthermore, drop-out rates are extremely low.

“Out of the 500 people that started courses at the beginning of the school year, only 14 have discontinued the course,” she said.

One of the reasons why students drop out is because they are poached by other companies after acquiring a basic skills set.

“A student may be offered a slightly higher salary by another company, which is the main reason why they don’t complete the course,” she said.

Drop-out rates at CVT are extremely low, according to CVT's director
Drop-out rates at CVT are extremely low, according to CVT’s director

The odd CVT student returns to visit their training school to give thanks to their teachers. Many have gone on to become small business owners, or undergo further training to become a CVT instructor. Former students also network together on a regular basis.

“Some of our students now ear higher salaries than us!” said Daw Yin Yin Aye with a grin.

With CVT’s existing school bursting at the seams, a larger complex will open in Yangon’s Thingangyun Township in May 2017, thanks to support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This will allow CVT to double its intake of students in vocational training programmes and further expansion will always remain the aim of the game.

For more information, visit CVT’s website by clicking here 

 

How to play the rental game in Yangon – and win

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 3 December 2015

Reams of razor wire are par for the course at most Myanmar homes.
Reams of razor wire are par for the course at most Myanmar homes.

It’s hard to find a bargain in Yangon’s rental market. In fact it’s probably safer to assume that you won’t, because prices have skyrocketed with the influx of expats and international businesses setting up shop. At one point, things got so out of control that prices in several townships were on a par with New York City. Fortunately, as supply is catching up with demand, the situation is improving. And things will only get better, as thousands of condo units will soon be on the market.

However many quirks remain in Yangon’s real estate market. As someone who has lived in two houses and one apartment over the course of three-and-a-half years, I’ve compiled a list of tips aimed at improving your chances of being happy in your chosen abode.

Tip 1: Begin your search online

‘For Rent’ signs don’t appear out the front of properties in Myanmar, which makes it impossible to scour a neighbourhood or a particular street that appeals. The reason for the lack of signage is due to the highly competitive and unregulated market for real estate agents and brokers – neither of whom require a licence to operate.

Packing up a home can be an arduous task: enlist the help of friends if you can!
Packing up a home can be an arduous task: enlist the help of friends if you can!

“Putting a sign up would draw attention to the fact that a property is available and agents want to do the best job they can without other agents and brokers cutting in on the deal. Also, the owner of a vacant property would be inundated with calls from agents and brokers claiming to have prospective tenants. It would make the situation very messy, which is why there is a hush-hush attitude towards it,” said a real estate player who declined to be named.

However due to a lack of education among agents, for whom internet listings is a relatively new concept, properties listed on online search engines such as house.com.mm are often merely for show. Don’t spend too much time weighing up one versus another – it’s better to click on a dozen or so, regardless of price or location (or appearance). The benefit of using the website is that it connects you with various agents, who most often will follow up promptly with a call to ask questions such as “Which townships do you prefer?”, “How many bedrooms?” (note – don’t get excited by the idea of a four bedroom place: flimsy partitions are often used to carve up additional rooms which are teeny-tiny), “How many square feet?”, “What is your budget?” and “Are you looking for furnished or unfurnished?” Not once has a reference been made to a specific property I was interested in viewing on house.com.mm.

Tip 2: Use a variety of different agents

There are houses and then there are houses (this one belongs to a famous actress).
There are houses and then there are houses (this one belongs to a famous actress).

Some agents are better than others so it’s best to try as many as possible. My husband and I have been shown the exact same apartment by different agents and were quoted significantly different prices. This isn’t uncommon. Furthermore, agents may disregard your stated criteria despite answering the aforementioned questions. You’ll likely be taken to three or four different properties to view and if one or more is wildly beyond your budget or other stated requirements, it may be a sign that the agent will lead you on further wild goose chases. Many agents are savvy and know a good deal when they see it – ask them if they have any ‘special’ properties worth viewing.

Tip 3: Negotiate hard

Most landlords in Myanmar begin with a ‘calling price’ – that is, the optimum amount they’re seeking, which is cheekily above market value (even for Yangon). Ask the agent about how willing the landlord is to negotiate: you may very well get it for significantly less. Ask your agent to do the bidding for you and offer a price much less than what you’d actually be willing to pay: most of the time you’ll meet somewhere in the middle.

Tip 4: Know your landlord

Elevators are not yet the norm in Yangon
Elevators are not yet the norm in Yangon

‘Knowing your landlord’ doesn’t mean building a personal friendship: it’s about assessing their character and the likelihood of them carrying out any necessary maintenance, as well as sticking to their end of the deal (I knew a couple who spent a significant amount of money renovating a very basic flat and were subsequently kicked out of it after their landlord paid a visit and noticed the improvements). Landlords that are agreeable to installing the odd air-conditioning unit or repairing a broken fence prior to you moving in are better than those who possess a ‘take it or leave it’ approach. For example, when our front fence keeled over during a particularly heavy monsoon drenching, our landlady blamed its collapse on a shrub we’d planted and refused to pay for repairs. We had to go to our local YCDC office to lodge a complaint – she caved in but dragged out repairs for more than two weeks (this was tough on our dog, who had to stay inside or in the garage until it was safe for her to play outside). If a potential landlord is willing to negotiate fairly on the calling price, that’s another good sign.

As Robin Aung Saw Naing, Managing Director of Pronto Services said, “Sometimes owners pull rental prices out of the air – it can be a question of individual greed.” Be wary of landlords who ask inappropriate questions, such as how many male or female friends you have or what your religion is. They may prove intrusive.

Tip 5: Test  everything before signing anything

Many properties are poorly maintained – or were constructed on the thinnest of budgets. When inspecting a property, don’t be shy about testing everything from water pressure (both toilets and taps) and whether windows and doors close smoothly or with a loud creak – and make sure you inspect properties during the daylight hours to make sure there is adequate natural light. It may even be worthwhile hiring the services of TYW & Associates Plumbing (Phone: 092500 66172), who can carry out checks on voltage stability, individual electrical units and plumbing systems. We failed to do so and spent a year in a house that couldn’t accommodate more than one AC at a time and got electric shocks from kitchen appliances (those same appliances work perfectly in our new place). If a monastery is located nearby, you may also need to consider the possibility of chanting that can last through the night.

Tip 6: Do you really want to live in a house?

Having a yard is a wonderful thing, as is the privacy most houses afford. However the constant upkeep of a house can be monumentally challenging if your agent or landlord is hands-off (which is more common than not). It can involve manually turning on water tanks (the supply of water itself can be inconsistent), slipping on concrete yards, curbing the growth of weeds and grass in the rainy season and encountering the occasional rat or snake – not to mention a countless number of potential infrastructural problems. That said, apartments aren’t necessarily going to cause less headaches, though they do seem likely to. My friend Nathalie recently discovered that the plumbing problems in her apartment were caused by a banyan tree growing inside the pipes… True story.

While bleach can counter the slipperiness of a concrete yard (which can knock a motorbike sideways as I can testify), direct contact with it (especially for pets) is harmful. Furthermore, the true colours of a house tend not to be revealed until the monsoon season hits. Mould is a health hazard (which is not to say it doesn’t sprout in apartments) and leaking roofs can damage your furniture and peace of mind. While it’s hard to predict what may or may not happen in advance, it’s worth asking the landlord about how recently a home was rain-proofed.

Mould grows thick and fast. This is a pic of our living room wall in our house in Parami.
Mould grows thick and fast. This is a pic of our living room wall in our house in Parami.

Tip 7: A six month lease or a 12 month lease?

Yangon is highly unusual in that it is only one of two cities (the other being Jakarta) where a year’s rent is required to be paid upfront in full. The deposits itself is negligible though. While many landlords are nowadays amenable to the idea of paying six or even three-month installments, the risk of signing a six month lease is that the rent is likely to be hiked up when the time comes to sign a new lease. Some landlords will offer a reduced monthly rent fee if 12 months is in paid in full at the beginning. It’s definitely worth asking about a possible discount if you can front up a year’s rent in advance. Fortunately, the vast majority of landlords will not evict a tenant and sub-leasing is permissible should you need to leave the country sooner than planned. However the responsibility of making such arrangements is entirely up to the tenant and I’ve heard stories of landlords demanding that the sub-lessee pay a higher rate (that’s just naked greed!). The Google group Yangon Expat Connection is a useful means of finding people looking for a short-term stay (that they could later extend with the landlord), however  rental prices advertised by brokers and agents on YEC tend to be over-priced and are thus best avoided.

Tip 8: Try to avoid moving during Buddhist Lent

The three months of Buddhist Lent, which begins in mid-July, is a tricky time to move as there is a deeply held belief in Myanmar that undertaking property dealings during this period results in bad luck. Thus, choices become limited.

Concrete yards are common as they are somewhat more practical during the monsoon season and lack appeal to snakes and what not. Add a few pot plants to liven up the look!
Concrete yards are common as they are somewhat more practical during the monsoon season and lack appeal to snakes and what not. Add a few pot plants to liven up the look!

The upside is that those properties which are listed on the market are likely to be something of a bargain, as inquiries will be few and far between. Another upside is that you can assess a property’s resilience to the rainy season!

Tip 9: Use Pathway Moving Services

Pathway Moving Services offers a premium moving service that includes having at least one English speaker on the job. The company is owned by an American husband and wife, who will drop off cardboard boxes and packing tape to your door step and will provide a quote based on the amount of furniture that needs to be moved (and the distance between the two homes). There’s even a packing and unpacking service, which is a great option for busy parents with small children. While cheaper moving services certainly exist, there’s a fairly big risk of damage being caused to either your belongings or your current or former abode as workers tend to rush things.

Tip 10: Invest as much time as possible

Moving is incredibly stressful – as is the process of finding a new home. However worst of all is coming home to an apartment or house that you detest. Your wellbeing will suffer and no doubt, your work productivity will too. Start house-hunting at least a couple of months in advance of your actual move date and be prepared to sacrifice many a weekend doing so. There are some abysmally bad places to live in Yangon, but there are also some spectacular ones. The more time and energy you invest, the more likely you are to feel content and at ease in your new home in Yangon.

Awed by Kalaw

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 19 November

This railway bridge dates back to the British colonial era.
This railway bridge dates back to the British colonial era.

While Inle Lake and Bagan may be better known to foreign tourists in Myanmar, the former British hill station of Kalaw in western Shan State is getting an increasing number of rave reviews.

Dutch tourist Joost Van Der Velden told The Global New Light of Myanmar that the three-day trek he did from Kalaw to Inle Lake was the highlight of his month-long visit to Myanmar.

“It was an amazing experience – it was the best thing I did,” the 23-year-old said while sipping a Myanmar beer at Yangon’s Motherland Inn 2 Guesthouse on the evening before he flew home.

According to data from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a significant number of tourists are seeking out the pleasures of Kalaw – which include a temperate climate, forest pines, a gaggle of colonial buildings and diverse cuisine. Between January and October 2015, almost 13,000 foreign tourists visited the area.  A few years ago, the number would have been but a fraction of that (as admittedly would have been the case everywhere) – however with the latest edition of Lonely Planet (2014) rating Kalaw as one of the country’s highlights, it seems certain to attract an increasing stream of curious visitors.

Having a quick bite of lunch at busy Kalaw market.
Having a quick bite of lunch at busy Kalaw market.

Mr Van Der Velden was travelling solo through Myanmar but he was among a group of five trekkers – three of whom were also foreign tourists, plus a guide called Uncle Sam of Uncle Sam’s Treks, which is a family-run company based in Kalaw.

The three-day trek includes six hours of trekking on the first day, followed by seven hours on the second – and it’s literally all downhill from there, Mr Van Der Velden said.

While it may sound like a lot of legwork, Mr Van Der Velden insisted that the terrain isn’t too tough.

“You don’t need to be super-fit or anything to do it – a regular person could do it, as it’s never particularly steep. The landscape is amazing and the views are beautiful – particularly on the third day, as Inle Lake comes into view.”

Kalaw is the only place in Myanmar where foreigners are permitted to do overnight treks. Uncle Sam’s Treks arranges for guests to spend two nights in villages inhabited by different ethnic minority groups, which in the region include the Palaung, Danu, Pa-O, Taung Yo and Danaw tribes.

Can't say I fancied eel sticks for lunch though!
Can’t say I fancied eel sticks for lunch though!

“Uncle Sam was the sweetest, most gentle guy. He’s quite old, I guess. He said to us, ‘Please stop to enjoy what the locals say and hear their stories,” Mr Van Der Velden said.

Although the Dutch tourist was uncertain which tribal group he’d stayed with, he said the food was delicious and the thanaka on the children was “very sweet.”

However he said one aspect of the trip – which included accommodation and meals and cost just K38,000 – was somewhat disappointing.

“The countryside in Kalaw is very different from the Netherlands, where it’s very flat. I’d really wanted to see a snake as I’ve never seen one before. Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” he said with a shrug.

After arriving in Inle Lake by boat, Mr Van Der Velden caught the bus to Bagan.

Deft fish chopping
Deft fish chopping

“Bagan is already a bit too touristy. The trek was authentic. Mandalay? That was my least favourite place – it’s humid, crowded, a bit dirty and it’s hard to find a good restaurant. Although Yangon is a big city, the people are really friendly and were so helpful to me whenever I got lost,” he said.

For those who still remain opposed to the idea of trekking and sleeping in basic surrounds – or are simply time poor – visiting Kalaw as a day trip from the Shan State capital of Taunggyi is perfectly possible. I set off at around 10am and was ready to catch my flight back to Yangon from Heho airport by 5pm that same day.

My guide and driver was Ko Japan, who charged K60,000 for a day of sightseeing in the comforts of his air-conditioned saloon (which in retrospect, seems a bit pricey). Incidentally, Ko Japan nicknamed himself after his favourite country – though his dream of visiting Japan is yet to materialise. He drove carefully and wasn’t a chatterer, but boy did he have a couple of great tales.

The first went like this…

An abundant array of spices are sold at Kalaw market
An abundant array of spices are sold at Kalaw market

“Back in the sixties – I’m not sure which year exactly – the Russians built a new hospital in Shan State. They gave it to Myanmar as a gift and even staffed it with Russian doctors. One day, the doctors got a call saying that some very important soldiers in Myanmar’s army had fallen ill.

Of course the Russian doctors went there without delay – and all four were kidnapped by a Shan rebel group who were dressed as government military personnel. The rebel group said they would release the doctors if their warlord was freed from prison after being arrested by government police. After about a month, the warlord was released from prison and the Russians were freed. They went back to their country after that.”

Coincidentally, on the day I travelled to Kalaw, a pair of bandits were on the loose after escaping from police in a style not dissimilar to a Hollywood Western. After being sentenced for drug trafficking the day before, the two men were being driven in a police van to the cells that awaited them. The vehicle was ambushed by members of their gang brandishing weapons and the police had no choice but to set them free or risk losing their lives.

Mingalabar sir
Mingalabar, sir

Police checks lined the roads every few kilometers or so (which were lined by an outrageous number of Ooredoo and Telenor posters), although Ko Japan told me he suspected the duo had already made it over the border to Thailand.

When I looked at him incredulously, he said: “It would take a long time [to reach Thailand] by road, but though the jungle it’s not far at all,” he said.

We stopped by the side of the road as our timing coincided with the passing of a train across a bridge. We could hear the diesel train chugging for minutes before it came into view from a side bend and may its way across a skinny bridge surrounded by lush jungle.

“It has to be the world’s slowest train,” muttered Ko Japan.

His comment seems fair – the journey from Yangon to Mandalay takes a full 24 hours. For some it’s the only viable route if they cannot afford to fork out on a more costly bus ticket.

You won't be hard pressed for photo opps at Kalaw market
You won’t be hard pressed for photo opps at Kalaw market

As soon as we arrived in Kalaw, I went camera-in-hand to the central market, which teems with life and colour. Live eels squiggled on wood-worn tables, chunks of meat were diced into tiny pieces by women dexterously wielding machetes, and the array of spices, flowers and fresh produce was mind-boggling.

I strolled around the pretty and quaint streets for 45 minutes or so before my appetite got the better of me and I returned to Ko Japan’s car. On my request, he dropped me out of the front of Everest Nepali Restaurant – which is right opposite Uncle Sam’s Treks (which also has a restaurant).

Slippery little suckers
Slippery little suckers

The restaurant isn’t as out of place as it sounds. Kalaw was founded as a hill station by British civil servants fleeing the heat of the plains during colonial rule, and while the Brits may have left, there remain a significant number of Nepali Gurkas and Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who were brought to Kalaw to build  roads and the railway line during the British colonial era (which ended in 1948 when Myanmar regained independence). Fortunately, their culinary traditions have been well kept, with recipes handed down from generation to generation. I had high hopes for my meal as I’d been to Everest’s ‘sister’ restaurant in the tourist town of Nyaung U in Inle Lake. In short, it certainly didn’t disappoint, although the décor could have done with a few less buckets of bright orange paint. Or perhaps it was right on the mark, as my lasting impression of my fleeting visit to Kalaw is one big riot of colour.

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