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Into the woods: Vietnam’s poor high school grads talk factories, foreign work programs and debt

Into the woods: Vietnam’s poor high school grads talk factories, foreign work programs and debt

Many are asking what’s the point of a degree when it doesn’t guarantee a job and leaves them in massive debt.

A third of Vietnam’s 900,000 new high school graduates didn’t bother applying to university last month.

Instead, they’ve sought work in factories at home and colleges abroad. Some have taken an uncertain debt-addled step into countries they’ve never visited and don’t understand as guest workers.

This July, while hundreds of thousands of high school seniors were scrambling for slots in the country’s top universities, VnExpress International decided to talk to kids from all over the country who have bowed out. They blamed the country’s confusing college entrance exam, the cost of a four-year degree and, above all, uncertainty about what value those degrees hold in the labor market.

The numbers back their decision.

In 2017, university degrees failed to net jobs for over 200,000 graduates in Vietnam.

The country’s growing pool of jobless grads has become so daunting, the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs recently pledged to find them work in overseas markets like Japan, South Korea and Germany.

Vietnam’s underemployed undergraduates are vastly underrepresented in the local media, which favors glowing profiles of upwardly-mobile overachievers and poor rural students who overcame harsh circumstances to land spots in the nation’s most prestigious schools.

Students take a nap before a national graduation exam last June. Photo by Thanh Nguyen

 

In this Confucian culture, higher education means more than just a shot at more money; it determines whether a child brings pride or disappointment to his parents.

Those who question the value of higher education seldom appear in the national narrative.

Instead, they fill the ranks of Vietnam’s cheap labor force, overseas students or migrant workers who send back remittances that still make up a significant chunk of the economy.

Nguyen Thao Vi

Graduated from Ben Tam High School, Hai Duong Province

 

I am considering applying for a job at a nearby clothing company or the Samsung factory in Bac Ninh Province.

I don’t think I am competent enough to get into college. Plus, I’d be a burden on my family, which would have to pay for four years of tuition and living costs.

I have a younger sister to take care of. 

I don’t know exactly when I decided to become a factory worker. It is just very common for girls here to work in factories. The companies post recruitment banners all over the area, and many women in my neighborhood work in clothing and shoes factories. Other options are scarce in this rural area. Only five or six of my classmates are applying for college; maybe two others plan to go to Japan or South Korea to study, but they have to pay a huge sum of money.

In my final year in high school, a few people from Samsung visited my school and went to classes to give presentations about job opportunities. They recently set up a recruitment office in the area. We are promised a monthly salary around VND6 million – 8million (US$264-352), accommodation in their dorms, and a job assembling stuff. All that sounds tempting to me. But some relatives are suggesting I take a job at the clothing factory in the neighboring district. It’s closer; shuttle buses pick us up at 6 A.M. and drive us home at 6 P.M. every day.

That’s all I have planned for the future. I don’t have much of a dream, and all factories pretty much sound the same.

I don’t know exactly when I decided to become a factory worker. It is just very common for girls here to work in factories. Other options are scarce in this rural area.

Employees make their way to work at the Samsung factory in Thai Nguyen Province, north of Hanoi, Vietnam October 13, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Vi is joining the fresh batch of Vietnam’s cheap labor force, which is expected to grow to 62 million in 2025 and has provided the country’s chief investment draw for the last decade.

Last year, labor experts warned that low-skilled workers will face stiff competition from neighboring populations and robots in the near future.

Girls and women are the most vulnerable as they are more susceptible to job loss than men, when automation expands in the manufacturing sector.

In Vietnam’s garment sector, 86 percent of workers could lose their jobs in the coming decades, according to the International Labor Organization.

Nguyen Thanh Trung

Graduated from Giong Ong To High School, Ho Chi Minh City

 

Two months ago, I told my parents I wanted to study in Canada.

My family isn’t rich. My dad works for a taxi firm; my mom stays at home. They’re both old.

Just like everyone else, they took for granted that I would try to get into a university here. They always used to say: “Do whatever you want, but you have to get a university degree. For us.”

Then the country suddenly changed the format of the graduation exam to multiple-choice just four months before I had to take it. You should know that students had spent the last three years of high school preparing just for this exam, and we had never taken a Math test before in a multiple-choice format. Math is a key subject in the exam, and it was the final blow for me and many of my classmates. Most decided not to apply for college this year.

They asked: “How can we make it?” A few are eager to join the military.

One of my cousins is sending her kids on a Canadian program that doesn’t require students to provide evidence of their finances before they apply for college, so she suggested I should try it out.

So I told my parents my new plan. It shocked them. 

High-school kids get no career guidance. Nobody advises us on which school or field might suit our abilities or interests.

If things go as planned, I’ll study automobile engineering in Canada this fall. My cousin says it’s a promising field. High-school kids get no career guidance. Nobody advises us on which school or field might suit our abilities or interests. Without this Canada plan, I would have tried to get into an English or International Relations program at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. It’s a prestigious school here and I’d want to give it a shot.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that course would guarantee me anything in the future. Universities in Vietnam are really hard to get into, but they don’t provide us with any practical knowledge or skills that companies need. Employers don’t appreciate that, and that’s why fresh graduates struggle to find jobs.

Anyway, I can’t see my future in Canada being any better. My parents are going to sell our house, which they’ve just paid off, just to get me into the school. I will have to find a part-time job to cover my living costs. Let’s hope things go OK over there.

Vietnam has more than 130,000 students overseas, according to a 2016 report from the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET). Most of them are paying their own way, which has created a booming industry for service providers.

Over 90 percent of international students of Vietnamese origin are self-funded and the total spending on overseas education amounted to roughly 1 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013, the Ministry of Education and Training reported.

No one has gathered data on the number who come back saddled with debt.

Nguyen Thi Hang

Graduated from Le Quy Don High School, Ha Tinh Province

 

In Grade 11, I decided I’d go to Japan as a guest worker after graduation.

Four of my cousins have gone there to work and my family thinks I should follow them. My parents paid nearly VND150million [US$6,600] to guarantee me a spot on the program.

I don’t believe going to university will ensure a bright future. Every year there are so many unemployed (or underemployed) university graduates. That’s not what I want.

Not all of my friends want to go to college. A few chose the same path as me – going abroad to work as an “exported laborer” (xuat khau lao dong) as we call it here.

One of my friends will go to Taiwan, as far as I know. 

I don’t know exactly what I will do in Japan, to be honest. But my parents said the salary is definitely more promising than, say, working as a hairdresser in my hometown like other girls.

I have never been abroad. The farthest I have ever been to is Ho Chi Minh City for a vacation with my family a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to step out into the wider world, and to learn something from it.

I don’t know exactly what I will do in Japan, to be honest. They said there will be a whole process of learning and testing before they can decide which job I should be trained for. But my parents said the salary is definitely more promising than, say, working as a hairdresser in my hometown like other girls.

I have not thought much more about the future. At the moment, I am focusing on packing and preparing for my Japanese journey, which begins with a six-month language course in Ho Chi Minh City next week. I’m really excited about both Ho Chi Minh City and Japan.

Hang will join over 100,000 guest workers that Vietnam sends abroad this year, primarily to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Japan’s need for young foreign workers has surged recently, prompting businesses to recruit as many Vietnamese technical interns as possible. Starting salaries range from VND25 million ($1,100) to VND30 million ($1,300) per month, local media reported.

Many Vietnamese, however, have fallen victim to human trafficking, discrimination and even death while pursuing such opportunities.

Nguyen Quynh Nhu

Graduated from Ha Huy Tap High School, Nha Trang Town, Khanh Hoa Province

 

I am going to be a hotel receptionist.

I don’t want to spend three or four years in college just to get a degree and then struggle to find a job that suits it.

There were only two students in my class that didn’t go to university: myself and another guy. Many of my friends say they feel bad and worry about me starting work without a degree. But by the time they graduate, I will have three years of experience under my belt—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I don’t want to spend three or four years in college just to get a degree and then struggle to find a job that suits it.

In Nha Trang, working in hospitality is quite a “hot” career. There are a lot of hotels and restaurants around here and they don’t require much beyond a decent grasp of English. My uncle pulled some strings and I got accepted at a hotel here. My salary starts at VND 3.5million (US$154) per month and I can increase it by taking some Chinese and Russian language courses. That’s the furthest into the future that I can plan.

My family? They are completely with me on this. I have a few cousins and relatives who actually went to university and ended up selling clothes in shops. So I don’t believe a university degree makes much of a difference.

 

Nhung Nguyen

Cover photo by Thanh Nguyen

Saigon University in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Thanh Nguyen


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