To grow, Mekong Delta needs to keep its workers

November 6, 2022 | 07:24 pm PT
Tran Huu Hiep Economist
Toan of Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta has two children studying in the same university.

One chose its HCMC campus, hoping to later find a job in the country's booming economic hub, while the other studied in neighboring Can Tho City, wishing to stay and work near home.

The finances required for the two cannot be more starkly different. For the one studying in Can Tho, Toan only spends half the money he spends on the other with its far lower living expenses and discounted tuitions.

Toan's situation is similar to that of many parents in the Mekong Delta. There was a time when students, to enter university, had to move to Hanoi or HCMC depending on where they lived.

Nowadays students in the delta can choose from a large number of local universities instead of moving to costly HCMC for four years. They offer training in a variety of fields, from agriculture to economics and law to medicine. Students can even choose some niche majors like artificial intelligence, ethnic cultural studies or Korean language.

Slowly a whole educational ecosystem has emerged in an area traditionally known for its low educational development.

The delta has only been part of Vietnam for the last 300 years. Despite the country having many universities for long, only in 1966 did the first higher education institution open in this region. It was the Can Tho University, which remained the only university there until the early 2000s.

Subsequently more and more universities opened to address the need for skilled workers there.

Now, with 19 universities and five extra campuses, higher education opportunities are available all over the delta.

Nevertheless, this boom in higher education has not caused the region to pull ahead of the nation in terms of number of university students.

It only has 9.2 university students for every 1,000 citizens, or less than half the national average of 19.4. The numbers in the southeast, including HCMC, and Red River Delta, including Hanoi, are 35.6 and 33.4.

Though this lack of university students and subsequently skilled workers has been widely recognized for a long time, there have been no effective measures to tackle it.

Besides, only 14.1% of workers in the delta receive formal training, just more than half the national average (26.1%).

The unemployment rate here is significantly higher than the national average at 4.05% compared to 3.2%.

One likely reason for this lack of formal training for workers is the low number of companies operating in the region: 3.6 per 1,000 population.

It is only higher than in the northwestern mountainous area while being significantly lower than the national average (8.7 per 1,000). The southeastern region tops with 19.3.

There are three main problems the delta faces: low allocation of funds by the government, a lack of human resources and inefficient economic structure. This has caused a low level of structural development across the region.

The delta has received insufficient funds for development for a long time, especially infrastructure and logistics.

It does not have enough workers, especially skilled workers, and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of corporates here, which drives away young talent. Statistics show that almost 1.3 million people migrated from the region between 2009 and 2019.

Third, as the region plays a major role in ensuring national food security, its focus remains overwhelmingly on the agricultural sector. This turns the region away from the development of the industrial and services sectors, leading to an imbalance in its economic structure.

The lack of industrial and services opportunities means locals are often forced to move elsewhere to earn a living.

How can the Mekong Delta address its problems?

To me, Vietnam needs to change its strategic view of the Mekong Delta. Instead of limiting it to natural resources and agriculture, we should allow its human resources space to advance.

We should first provide more advanced education in the delta before reorganizing the local economy to generate more jobs and effectively retain skilled workers.

Only when the Mekong Delta retain its human resources can it hope to improve its economy.

*Tran Huu Hiep has a Ph.D in economics and is a Master of Law.

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