Sompong Vitsetsin stands out a little at the Champasak Technical-Vocational College, but it is not because she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing.

“People may see it as an occupation for men,” says the 25-year-old electronics instructor, whose students are almost entirely male, “but women can do it just as well.

Sompong teaches the maintenance of electric motors at the school near Pakse City in the south of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) and treats her “odd one out” status as a challenge to be relished and a barrier to break through.

“People may see it as an occupation for men, but women can do it just as well.”

Sompong Vitsetsin, electronics instructor

Such confidence is a sign of the changing times in the Lao PDR. Occupations once off-limits for women are attracting a growing cohort of female students looking for jobs with better income and the chance that many technical trades offer to set up their own businesses.

Nonetheless, although women accounted for nearly 43% of total enrollment at the country’s public technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges during the 2016/17 school year, the numbers remained heavily skewed toward courses in traditionally female-dominated skill areas such as tailoring, basic business administration, and hospitality service.

Two ADF-supported projects to strengthen TVET in the Lao PDR have been working to change this by encouraging young women to consider courses largely now the domain of young men.

Approved in 2010 and completed in 2017, the Strengthening Technical and Vocational Education and Training Project took on some of the obstacles to creating a place for women in the so-called blue-collar occupations. It set a minimum 20% quota for female participation in courses designed to develop the skills then most in demand by the economy. A quarter of the vouchers allocated under an assistance program for poorer students were reserved for women, as were half of the spaces in dormitories built to encourage the poor from remote and rural areas to attend TVET schools.

“There was only one girl in my class when I started as a female teacher in 2010. Only 6 years later, there were 16.”

Phonethip Thepboualy, TVET instructor

The Second Strengthening Technical and Vocational Education and Training Project, approved in 2017 with a $25 million ADF 12 grant, is building on the first through stipend assistance for disadvantaged students, school infrastructure upgrades, and teacher training.

Because young women in the countryside have been largely dissuaded by family and cultural pressures from considering vocational courses traditionally viewed as male-only, the project has included a vigorous homestay program by TVET colleges that sent about 150 teachers out to inform and engage young women in these areas.

Phonethip Thepboualy has taken part in the rural campaign. “There was only one girl in my class when I started as a female teacher in 2010,” says the plumbing and woodwork specialist who credits the outreach, the voucher system, and the strong job market for TVET graduates with the right skills for a steady rise in female enrollment. “Only 6 years later, there were 16.”“It is one of the most effective ways we have to reach these students,” says Bouakhay Souphaone, Champasak Technical-Vocational College’s director. “Our teachers interact with them right in the community and raise awareness about our college and the courses we provide.”

The project has strengthened the TVET curricula and the colleges’ links and communication with the private sector on current labor needs. About 90% of graduates with electronic, plumbing, and automotive sector training readily find work, according to project manager Phouvieng Phoumilay.

“I love this subject,” says Sirixay Vongvichith, a 20-year-old woman taking an auto mechanics course. “I plan to set up my own garage after graduation. With my training and the strong demand for tractor and other machine repair, I can see a good business opportunity.”

Learn more about the Asian Development Fund (ADF).

This article was originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.