From rice to robots: Is Vietnam's workforce ready for the future? Let us know what you think!


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As a member of the WTO since 2007 and located in the middle of fast-growing East Asia, Vietnam has earned a reputation as a smart place to invest. Its people are a major asset in attracting foreign investors: Vietnam can boast of its comparatively low wages and a large, young and hard-working labor force. Despite Vietnam’s success so far, it remains to be seen whether its workforce is ready for the next phase in the country’s development – to carry forward the transition from a largely agrarian to an industrialized economy.  Are Vietnam’s workers ready to move from low to high tech production? From rice to robots?

Several questions need answers before we can begin to assess Vietnam’s preparedness:

First, do Vietnam's job seekers, especially recent graduates, possess the skills that employers seek, in particular those in higher tech industries such as IT or electrical machinery? What are the characteristics that employers are looking for in employees? Which characteristics need to be strengthened to meet employer’s demands? Are they looking for practical technical skills, an ability to analyze numbers, diagrams and figures, good writing abilities? Or are they seeking leadership and managerial talent, team work or more general workplace skills such as problem-solving, strong enthusiasm and motivation? Do employers demand work experience of recent graduates for example through internships, and how important is prior work experience compared to a good degree?

Second, if job seekers do not have the attributes demanded in the labor market, what’s keeping them from acquiring these necessary skills? Are job seekers unaware of what employers want or which schools are good? Are schools and universities not teaching these skills? If so, why is that?

These questions are at the heart of new research at the World Bank in Vietnam and a host of other countries around the world. The aim is to improve the understanding of Vietnam’s labor market and possible skills shortages. Findings can later be used to provide advice to the Government on how to develop high quality human resources, one of the three breakthrough areas of Vietnam's socioeconomic development strategy from 2011-2020.

What we do know is this: Vietnam's population is becoming more and more educated, with near universal primary completion and fast expanding secondary and tertiary enrollments. Despite this, many employers in Vietnam say they are struggling with an insufficiently skilled work force. Little is known, however, about the skills most in demand, including by type of worker and industry. Sure, there are plenty of individual views and experiences: According to one foreign investor involved in high tech mechanical engineering in Ho Chi Minh City, “What is missing most are practical technical skills as well as thinking and problem-solving skills”. He thinks schools and universities need to encourage more critical thinking and less rote learning.

We want to know whether this assessment is correct or not, and to try to figure out what it means for Vietnam's education and training system and its curriculum. Furthermore, what should young people pay attention to as they make their decisions about education and careers?

These are some of the questions that we at the World Bank in Vietnam would like to find the answers to. As we begin to gather more data, we want to first hear from you. Do you think Vietnam is suffering from skills gaps? If so, what skills do you think are in short supply? What do you think are the reasons for skills gaps? And what should the government, employers and schools and universities do about it?

Let us know what you think and be our advisers!

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Christian Bodewig

Program Lead for Central Europe and the Baltic Countries, Europe and Central Asia

Join the Conversation

Barbara Shaw Miller
August 30, 2012

My experience in Vietnam is in the business of securing investment money for construction and development in major corridors. I have found a weakness in the young and/or old in their preparation and understanding of documents necessary for consideration of the investment. After long periods of uncertainty I find they are
knowledgeable but lack expression. Most importantly I find a weakness in oral
communication. The young and old seem uncomfortable in speaking out
and explaining their needs. A think tank perhaps would help.

This may fall in the need to crreate a business school environment. I agree
whole heartedly there is a need to encourage critical thinking. It appears there are
many schools but the curriculum is missing or misunderstanding the Vietnam economies needs in the workplace.

Paul Phillips
September 06, 2012

I believe sometimes when there is no obvious answer to a question posed, it probably means we must go back and analyze the question.

Before we can answer is the work force ready in Vietnam, we must decide what will Vietnam's place in the future global economy be. In other words, ready for what?

As an industry development consultant with more than 20 years experience in developing industries I would say the real problem in Vietnam is that the government has not spent enough time a nd research working out what Vietnam's place in the sun will be in 20 years from now. Will it be a manufacturer, or IT developer, or will it become a major player in emerging green industries.

When these questions have been answered, we will know what work force Vietnam now needs to begin training.

Time and Time again governments make the mistake of trying to build work forces based upon what is happening in the world today. It takes more than 10 years to develop an new Industry Sector within a country and similiar time to develop the work force for that Industry.

So I believe your question to people should be, 'What future industries should the government of Vietnam be concentrating on establishing here?'

When we have have the answer to this question, we will then know whether or not we can develop a suitable work force.

August 29, 2012

From my experience conducting a research by interviewing enterpreneurs in Thailand and Vietnam. I found that employers in both countries complain about competencies of the workforce. However, from our view is that to be an efficient workforce one needs 3 skills: cognitive skills, technical skills and behavioral skills. Most of TVET students in these 2 countries are poor in cognitive skills and behavioral skills, these 2 skills have strong impact to technical skills- to do the job well.
My conclusion is that "not everyone can be a good, effective workforce, they can be only temporary, poor self-employed and with low-end products". Vietnam might be able to handle the mass production(intensive labor) within this decade but not the next decade onwards. Vietnam will need to shift to high-end products, like Thailand is planning to get that goal, in the next decades. But Vietnam must start to produce high quality workforces by now.

October 21, 2015

couldn't argree more. Just wonder access to your research result. Can I have link/ copy of the report?

August 29, 2012

I am not familiar with the specifics in Vietnam, but found your questions (as always) compelling. There is a classic ethnographic study on Malay women working in factories, Aihwa Ong's "Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline." You may find it useful as you proceed with your work. Hope you can update us as it proceeds.

September 03, 2012

From my personal experiences handling Vietnam office (international quality equipment distribution), I found most of the employees in this field (University educated, or post graduates) are very young, not enough soft skills experience and specific expertise, not really hard working as I used to expected before coming to Vietnam. They are outspoken (more than average Thai people), and ask/comment for every thing they can. They have low engagement on company, job hunting is furious now and they use a couple of years experiences with international company as a tool to jump their salary or position they want. They really want to be manager only after 2 years working with us. I can see only 2% of my colleagues is capable and deserve for further development as higher position though I also feel sorry for those who left the company too early and still if they stay longer they have chances to grow.
They need to understand more of long term business model rather than taking the chance of country leap to pressure themselves as it will not be good for long term development of their own country.

September 30, 2012

After 12 years in Vietnam (FDI ) I could not see any improvement on needed skills to drive the economy.
There are major lacks in communication skill, teamwork is close to zero due to missing soft skills. The education level , from my perspective, is decreasing over the time but the demand on salary and position is outstanding high.
The all over productivity in the last decade is in no means matching the increase of salaries.
There is no willingness to change old habits in order to bust productivity and increase the skills . Upgrade certificates are only bought to demand higher paid, not to upgrade the work result.
Moreover there is no strategy on what Vietnam likes to be in the future. Industrialized in 2020, IT hub, Asian financial hub, major transit hub.....the plans are unrealistic, unclear and cause therefore a complete lack in education strategy.

October 11, 2012

Vietnam is still in it's infancy lacks a rigid education system which is needed to propell their young minds in the business world. Their overall highest degree program is similar to master's degree in the US. The country lacks technical skills needed to lauch the country into the next phase of any innovation. Vietnam's government actively has gone out to seek development of their educational system however quality of education varies among schools and can sometimes be subject to corruption (purchased degrees). The lack of education leaves the country vulnerable go exploitation and the inability for forsight to achieve their long term goals.

The workforce is erratic with varying levels of work output among different populations. The younger individuals seem to have an inflated expectations for their output.

October 28, 2012

Not only for the Vietnamese workers, but for workers of any nationality; education attained at diferent levels determines worker qualification for entry at different work skill. Only a good training program provided by the company coupling with a good benefit package can help new worker to effectively produce in according with the company's work procedures and expectation. This is how American industry succedded and became world leader. QA is also an integral part of the company training program and be monitored throughout all workshifts. Japan's QA schene had propelled Japanese economy to be among world leaders at its post WWII involvement.

April 03, 2013

In my opinion, Vietnamese students lack many skills for doing job well, but the most important skill they lack is critical thinking. I do not discuss the importance of this skills here, but the reason why they lack the skills. Vietnamese schools do not encourage students to think differently from what they are told, and students lack the ability to decide what is right or wrong. I think this stem from many reasons, but mostly from single political view in Vietnam because if student raises question on anything they study, they will raise question on that... As a result, it is better to teach students not to raise question but to believe what teachers or lecturers say. Therefore, they lack critical thinking skills. As a consequence, the students cannot work well after entering the workforce.

July 29, 2013

I am currently working in southern Vietnam on a government scheme as a teacher trainer to university lecturers and high school teachers. The overarching goal is to upgrade both English language skills and teaching practices. I would echo the above opinion that critical thinking is definitely not a prized quality in Vietnam-- not even amongst the ranks of the educators themselves. Perhaps the root cause may lie with singular political thought as mentioned, but I would posit that their deep roots in Confucian thought/education systems continue to waylay tendencies to critical thinking. Individually, great emphasis is placed on memorization, repetition and testing but dreadfully little on analysis, logic or long-term (strategic) planning. In groups, communication and teamwork tends to be poor, often marred by gender/social/economic divides and a cultural aversion to confrontation. It is generally a major loss of face to disagree with or criticize another person in a public forum. The result: 1) poorly conceived ideas or flawed logic is only rarely refuted in group scenarios; and 2) a sense that "nothing is mandatory" pervades-- in a work environment subordinates or coworkers will often simply ignore requests/orders that are inconvenient. Both can be averted by strong leadership... but will that leadership ever be developed?

June 02, 2014

Based on my experience as an English teacher here in Viet Nam from America, I see several issues based upon the fundamentals.
I see many students getting passed to the next level when they should not. Exactly why does this happen is not really certain for me. Perhaps the students are passed because the school wants to show "progress" to the parents so the parents will continue to keep their children there for in order for the school to continue making money. Sad but true; human nature and greed.
Secondly, the students are always tired. They go to primary school and then afterwards they go to an English School. On top of this nearly all get up very early due to the dynamics within their families, Many also go to bed late. Couple this with the fact that they are young and their bodies are growing (often times even lacking proper nutrition consisting of the essential minerals & vitamins which our DNA REQUIRES DAILY! ) and they are simply exhausted and fatigued while in the classrooms.
English is and will be the international language of global commerce. It is spoken all over the world and is being taught all over the world. As the world continues to 'develop' (in some regions more than others)communication will be in more demand. You cannot have a person from Korea, one from Viet Nam, another from Singapore, another from Columbia, and another from Japan all meeting in Sydney, Australia to discuss any type of subjects without first having the communication skills. One cannot have critical thinking skills unless one first understands. One can not understand unless he or she first knows the language unless one wants the results to be along the lines of building the Tower of Babel.
It also must be emphasized over and over again on how these learners are building a foundation for their futures. If they want to push around a food cart all day selling food then they need to really think (and their parents also) just why the family is spending money to learn English while others are truly there to learn.
I see a lack of critical thinking skills and most of the teaching materials do not push the students that want to learn. This is where I develop my OWN lesson plans that are more in tune with the real world.
Another matter that seems to be overlooked here is that, 'development' does not always equate to moving society and humanity forward. This can be seen in the petroleum industries, pharmaceutical industries, stock exchanges around the world, banking, quality of food free form genetically modified chemicals, etc, etc.
Viet Nam and other developing countries really need to think long and hard on just EXACTLY what they are willing inside their borders to operate and/or sell their products. Accept the good and turn away the harmful, and DO NOT be bullied into accepting certain conditions by more powerful nations or financial institutions.