Graduates: Aiming for Government, Private or NGO Careers

This photo taken on June 22, 2018 shows Cambodian university students listening to Prime Minister Hun Sen delivering an address during a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh. Photo AFP
  • Lim Tola
  • March 9, 2020 3:41 AM

Students with their new degrees have choices to make

Shortly after successfully completing their bachelor’s degree at university, many fresh graduates have difficult decisions to make as to on what sector to focus for a living. Should they aim for government positions as public servants or government officials; should they turn to the private sector and seek jobs at businesses big or small; or should they focus on employment in non-governmental organizations? With these possible options, what are the overall benefits and downsides one may experience during a career in these sectors? 

Each year, as tens of thousands of young adults—the new workforce of a nation—have just obtained their bachelor’s degrees, many new graduates are drowning in the sea of struggles, attempting to find a job in order to meet their financial needs on their own. Some of them compete for positions in the public sector. Others may end up working for private companies while others get positions in civil society or NGOs. 

What influences fresh graduates to make the decisions that will determine their careers? What leads them to put their trust and invest time in positions offered by the government, private firms or NGOs? 

Public Service

Before attempting to address the first question, we have to step back in time to the 1960s in Cambodia.  During this period, public servants could earn monthly salaries that enabled them to feed their entire families without much financial constraint on their family’s income. In addition to coming with good salaries, positions in the public sector were no ordinary jobs. They brought people standing, recognition as well as respect among the population. 

However, this has dramatically changed over the last half century, due in part to the numerous and constant social and political reforms. Government positions are not as glamorous and attractive as they were then. Some government employees are not receiving salaries enabling them to cope with today’s ever-increasing prices for food, products and services. 

Despite these downsides, what are the factors that may make government positions irresistible to newly graduated students?  

Everything happens for a reason and this also applies to government positions. Even though the retirement plan does not make it possible to maintain comfortable living standards, there are other factors that lead graduates to seek government positions. 

First, there remains a positive image of public service in Cambodia and of earning a decent salary through government work, which goes back to the 1960s. 

Second, some people prefer not to get into the private sector, which tends to demand high productivity from employees, putting pressure on them. 

Third, government jobs may lead to high-ranking positions, titles and honors in the public sector. 

A fourth reason is public servants’ ability to protect their own interests if they run businesses on the side, which explains why some government officials have no actual motivation for their duty, besides having a fancy title when they are in government buildings. Just a fingerprint scan and their entire duty for the day is basically handled: This might be what some—although not all—government officials do. 

Occasional surges take place during which the younger bloodline of older government officials or wealthy businessmen try to position themselves and secure public-sector jobs in addition to operating their own lucrative businesses. In this scenario, they pay little attention to what they can financially generate from their government jobs as it is all about how they can build up “credit” along the way, and later summon this accumulated credit to obtain power and titles whenever the circumstances become just right. For those truly wishing to build a career in the public service, there are a good number of opportunities when it comes to working as government officials. What is not ideal is the fact that government salaries tend to be far lower than those the private sector and NGOs are willing to offer. 

The private sector

Moving on to the private sector, what inspires most fresh graduates to focus on working for private enterprises in the early days of their careers? 

There is no single answer as there can be numerous reasons why they will turn to that sector. The usual ones are: 1. private companies tend to offer higher wages than those in the public service; 2. launching a business to leave a legacy for their future children; 3. having the ambition of becoming a well-known business leader in society. Nonetheless, the private sector also comes with its downsides. The more time a person spends in the private sector, the less time he/she has to build up “credit”—if they did want to—in government. So it’s a tradeoff, basically. 

The NGO sector

Then there are the job opportunities in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

Whether national or international, NGOs are part of a sector whose focus is humanitarianism for the benefit of society as a whole. True-hearted individuals concerned with people’s welfare are well-suited for jobs in this sector. Working for NGOs may come with less financial pressure work-load wise compared to the work in the private sector. Competition is less fierce, and work rhythm tends to be gentler unless one deals with critical issues. The tasks are executed whenever the external funding comes in, which may make it difficult to carry out long or short-term programs. But this field may not always be the best option. NGO employees may have difficulty adjusting to the working environment of the private or government sectors if they wish to switch career. This may be the result of the nature of the careers themselves:The private sector is funded through generated revenues with profit being the goal, which is the opposite of non-profit organizations’ concept as the name NGO indicates. NGOs and government organizations may function on similar workflows unlike that of the private sector. 

One big difference between government and NGO sectors may be salaries. Generally speaking, salaries at NGOs may be higher than the official salaries offered for government positions. 

To conclude, no matter what career a person pursues, this will usually be a long journey with benefits and hardships, carrying a shoulder angel or devil along the way. 

NGOs and public service gravitate more to humanitarianism, helping the vulnerable and serving the needs and wants of the country’s population. 

If a fresh graduate’s goal is to be “rich” fast, he/she should not hesitate to opt for the private sector: Aim for wealth, aim for business!


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