The difficulty in graduating and the lack of qualified workers is slowing development in Myanmar. A Swiss association hopes to ease this problem by exporting the concept of apprenticeships to the southeast Asian country.
The hall plunges into darkness for the second time within minutes, but everyone stays calm. The students are used to power cuts. A generator starts up, light returns and the lesson can continue.
This class has gathered on the third floor of the Red Cross house, an old building in the centre of Yangon. In other rooms, dozens of boys and girls learn how they can sell themselves better on the job market.
In the Center for Vocational Training (CVT), everyone can develop their own qualities, even if they come from a poor family.
“It’s a new way of acquiring knowledge and job skills,” the centre’s director Yin Yin Aye told swissinfo.ch.
The CVT’s aim is to teach and educate the younger generations in Myanmar so they can contribute more to the country’s economy.
The backers of the CVT say Myanmar’s production methods haven’t been modernised for ages and therefore no longer correspond to international standards. As a result, companies – both from Myanmar and abroad – struggle to recruit qualified staff.
The centre arose from an idea of Max Wey, a former Red Cross delegate. It was the first in the country that introduced the dual Swiss-style apprenticeship.
Apprentices complete a three-year scheme with a partner company. One day a week they visit the CVT to attend classes on theory, general education and their specialist field.
Five trades are offered: commercial clerk, carpenter, electrician, engineer and hotel or catering assistent. CVT points out that in these sectors there are no public educational opportunities.
“I have no work experience and can learn a lot at CVT,” said 18-year-old Mami, in her first term at the centre. “I’d especially like to improve my English.”
For Saw Nann Htwe, who works in a travel agency, it’s not always obvious how education and work should be combined. She is taking lessons in accountancy, commercial law and corporate communication, which makes her work easier in the office.
“I can tie what I learn very easily to what I do – this gives me confidence.”
After the apprenticeship, pupils receive a certificate of competence, as in Switzerland. This can open doors for them.
“Maybe I’ll get promoted,” hopes 21-year-old Myo Zar-Aung, a maintenance specialist in a private company. “I’d like to become an electrical engineer.”
In its ten-year existence, CVT has seen the number of people registered constantly increase. In 2012, there are 450 apprentices – double 2010 – and 500 partner companies.
The CVT management are all locals. Switzerland – and especially the Association for Apprenticeships in Myanmar, based in Sarnen, canton Obwalden – supplies financial assistance and advice.
Swiss experts and lecturers regularly met their colleagues in Yangon so they can adapt teaching plans and exchange experiences.
In addition to the classes on theory and the practical work in companies, every year the CVT apprentices also take part in a two-week course.
In a large shed outside the centre of town, various workshops and industrial machines are set up in order to improve technical proficiency. Sometimes the lessons start right from scratch.
“Some apprentices don’t know the colours of the different power cables,” said Ka Day Oo, in charge of electricians. “That’s a fundamental part of workplace safety.”
He explained that in companies, the apprentices are taught to repeat certain work processes without being told what rules they have to follow.
Pass it on
During the practical scheme, the apprentices have the chance to gain an overview of certain production processes, said Ko Minn, head of the carpentry workshop.
“They’ll learn how to pick the right type of wood and draw a design and also how to manufacture and sell it.”
Ko Minn explains that back in the companies, the apprentices can pass on what they learn to their colleagues.
“So ultimately people work more efficiently. That saves the employer time and money.”
And after a certain time those of an entrepreneurial bent can go it alone.
The CVT and its pioneering work enjoys the support of the authorities and it is for this reason that the future appears bright.
The centre hopes to be able to expand its vocational training into other fields. Similar centres are set to open soon in other countries.
“We’d like to serve as a model for Myanmar,” said Yin Yin Aye. “I just hope that in future the funds come not only from Switzerland but also from companies and businesspeople in the region."
Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been under military rule since 1962.
The country has faced political and economic isolation since the military refused to recognise the results of a democratic election in 1990, won by the pro-democracy National League for Democracy of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Foreign donors are reluctant to invest, saying the country's human rights record is abysmal.
Neighbouring China is its biggest political and economic ally and has capitalised on the West's reluctance to trade with the junta. It relies heavily on Myanmar for its energy needs and backs the regime in the international arena.end of infobox
Poverty and education
According to the UN report on human development (2011), Myanmar is ranked 149th out of 187 countries, down from 132nd the previous year.
Poverty and the provision of food belong to the main challenges in the country.
An investigation by the United Nations Development Programme showed that the Chin state in the west of the country was in greatest need. There, 73% of the population live below the poverty line.
With its plan for rural development and poverty reduction for 2011-2015, the Myanmar government wants to lower the poverty rate from 26% to 16%.
The UN Human Rights Council has said it is concerned that only 0.9% of GDP has been earmarked for education.
There are also concerns about obligatory schooling, which is limited to five years, the low number of children who attend primary school, the high number of pupils who have to repeat years or who drop out of school early on, the payment of indirect expenses by families, low teacher salaries and the teacher shortage.
(Source: report by Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, March 2012)end of infobox
(Adapted by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch