Affirmative action, vouchers, social marketing, and homestay visits are helping break through gender barriers to “blue collar” work in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Pakse, Lao PDR – As Sompong Visetsin patiently explains the finer points of a control motor to her students at the Champasack Technical-Vocational College in southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic, she is only too aware she is the odd one out in a class that is mostly male.

But the 25-year-old says she has never regretted her decision to pursue a tutoring career in cooling and refrigeration systems.

“I know it's a typically male occupation, but women can do it just as well,” she says. “I see it as a challenge that I want to break through.”

That confidence is a sign of the changing times in Lao PDR. Occupations once considered off limits for girls are now drawing a small but steadily rising number of female students attracted by work that offers both good incomes and the chance to set up their own business.

High demand for technical skills

The need for technically skilled workers has never been greater. Lao PDR is a fast-growing economy aiming to emerge from least developed country status by 2020. But while its headline growth numbers are impressive it is also running into major skills shortages in key technical fields including the construction, furniture making, plumbing, electrical, and automotive industries. 

“I know it's a typically male occupation, but women can do it just as well. I see it as a challenge that I want to break through.” 

Sompong Visetsin

The number of female students is increasing at public technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, with women accounting for 43% of all students enrolled in the academic year 2016-2017. But their course selection remains heavily skewed towards occupations traditionally deemed “female”, such as tailoring, basic business administration, and hospitality.

Coaxing young women to consider courses once seen as the sole preserve of males is one of the central goals of an ongoing Asian Development Bank (ADB)-assisted Strengthening TVET project. The project, which was approved in 2010 and is now in its second phase, introduced a number of initiatives to address barriers to women’s involvement in so-called “blue-collar” occupations.

Changing perceptions about TVET

The first was to set a 20% quota for female participants in courses covering priority skills for the Lao economy—construction, furniture making, and automotive and mechanical repairs.

A second key measure was the introduction of a voucher assistance system to entice poorer students to take up short courses in priority skills areas. About 40% of the vouchers were allocated for females, while a quarter of the short-term training slots were reserved for women out of school.

A third and equally crucial action was the construction of dormitories to encourage students from remote and poor rural areas to take up TVET education, with 50% of the spaces reserved for girls. The project also conducted a social marketing drive to improve perceptions of TVET, with a special focus on attracting interest from girls.

These initiatives have been reinforced by a vigorous homestay outreach campaign by TVET colleges in rural communities where family and cultural pressures have largely dissuaded girls from considering traditionally male vocational courses.   

“One of the most effective ways we have had in reaching students, is the development of a homestay program under which we send teachers out to train in communities and to raise awareness about our college and the courses we provide,” says Bouakhay Souphaone, Director of the Champasack Technical-Vocational College. “About 150 of our teachers have done homestay where they live with families.”

TVET opens door to jobs, entrepreneurship

Phonethip Thepboualy, a plumbing and woodwork specialist involved in the program, says she’s seen a steady rise in females taking her classes.

“When I started 6 years ago there was just one female but the class for this year has 16,” she says. “There is good demand in the market for graduates with these skills, and good opportunities for women in particular because of the voucher system offered under the project.”

“One of the most effective ways we have had in reaching students is the development of a homestay program under which we send teachers out to train in communities.” 

Bouakhay Souphaone

The drive to attract female students hasn’t all been plain sailing. Khamtanh Chanthy, a senior project officer at ADB’s Lao PDR resident mission, notes that the 20% goal of girls taking part in priority courses was overly ambitious, particularly in construction, which often involves tough physical work. At the same time, the overall rising female participation rate, shows the trend is going in the right direction.

“There has been a big increase in females taking up automotive, machinery, and electrical courses because it is relatively easy to find jobs in these fields and at the same time they can easily set up their own businesses,” says Chanthy.

TVET-business tie-ups

The project has also helped strengthen tie-ups between TVET institutions and the private sector and made a marked difference in the quality and relevance of courses, by shifting the focus to a blend of theory and hands-on-training to build students’ competency.

These improvements are reflected in the number of students getting jobs. In high-demand areas such as electronics, plumbing, and the automotive sector, about 75% of graduates readily find work, says the project manager, Phouvieng Phoumilay.

Increasingly, women are joining the ranks of those graduates, looking past the gender stereotypes about hands-on trades, to the very real opportunities they offer.

“I love this subject and when I graduate I plan to set up my own garage to fix tractors and other machines,” says 20-year-old automotive student, Sirixay Vongvichith. “There is a lot of demand to fix tractor machinery, so I see a good business opportunity here and this course will give me the skills to do it.”