Vietnam: Why Clever Students Don't Become Ace Employees

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By Lien Hoang

Every Tuesday evening strangers trickle into the Carthage Global office in Ho Chi Minh City. They're there to mingle, but they're also there to help the consulting company inject a little more ingenuity into its staff.

These weekly networking soirees expose the staff to new faces—and thus new ideas—on a regular basis, says Carthage Vietnam project manager Jonathan Dao. It's just one tactic in the company's strategy to address the challenge confronting much of the communist country's labor market: How can employers develop more practical and creative employees?

“I want to push my team to have good habits, to come up with ideas and share them with others,” Dao told Bloomberg BNA.

The complaint has become a refrain in Vietnam: Employees are more likely to follow the rules than question authority, says Nguyen Phi Van, founder of Retail & Franchise Asia, and even given the country's impressive academic achievement, there are not enough independent thinkers to achieve Vietnam's dream of constructing its own Silicon Valley.

Book Smarts

The Southeast Asian nation of 92 million beats rich nations from the U.S. to Iceland on international math and science tests. But for all the exam-obsessed whizzes it produces, Vietnamese pedagogy isn't translating into the kind of soft skills that employers are after, according to Gian Tu Trung, founder of the PACE Institute of Management in Ho Chi Minh City. Trung gave a familiar explanation—that classrooms only stress rote learning. Memorizing Marx and calculating quadratics might make for fine test takers, but not for a pragmatic employees.

“The political system influences the education system too much,” Trung said in a phone interview.

Problem solving, communication, and leadership are the top three skills found lacking in Vietnamese white-collar workers, according to a 2016 World Bank report. Literacy and numeracy are at the tail end of the list, suggesting Vietnamese have those basics covered.

Misfits and Troublemakers

When focusing on the technology sector, the No. 2 weakness is “a higher-level ability to design and think critically, instead of just execute,” the job search firm ITviec reported in a 2015 survey.

That's significant because, like so many countries, Vietnam is betting a sizable chunk of its economic future on tech startups; the government even has its own incubator, the subtly named Vietnam Silicon Valley. But a culture of innovation is fermented by people who solve problems, ask questions, and take risks. What Vietnam has, as it moves from factory work to a knowledge economy, is a one-party system of Confucian hierarchy not reliant on inquiry, invention, or imagination.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, putting the community before the individual, but it's also not exactly the misfits and troublemakers of Apple lore.

A Professor in Shorts

Human resource professional Vu Thi Huyen Trang told Bloomberg BNA that in her experience fewer than 10 percent of businesses have strategies to stoke creativity at the office. Trang heads client relationship management at Willis Towers Watson.

What's an employer to do then to inspire curiosity and creativity? Suggestions abound. Hoa Sen University professor Truong Nguyen Thanh made waves in April when he wore a pair of shorts during a lecture on innovation in Ho Chi Minh City. His message to undergrads: You don't have to do things like they've always been done.

Carthage wants staff to think differently, too, which is where the Tuesday-night networking comes in. The company nudges employees out of their comfort zones and into new environments. This can mean socializing — or swimming. One of the corporate training sessions requires people to team up, hop in a pool, and play a game that forces them to practice communication.

“When people are not sitting in a chair at their usual desk in front of their laptop, we have seen many surprising outcomes in terms of people engagement, interaction, and creativity,” Dao said. “The environment is key for us.”

Creative Solutions

At Ekino Vietnam, a digital outsourcing firm, there's a laundry list of activities to get synapses firing in the workplace, like a Christmas decoration contest, rounds of Exploding Kittens (a card game), and monthly updates to the communal bookshelf.

Many companies, from Ticketbox to Bien Dong Petro, use anonymous “idea boards” or contests to ask the rank and file for input, whether it's a suggestion to streamline operations or a product proposal.

“Some leaders think if they accept ideas from their staff, it means they are lower than their staff, but I think that's the wrong mindset,” said Trung, dispensing one of his classroom quips: “The boss makes people fear — but the leader makes people confident.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at

For More Information

For more information on Vietnamese HR law and regulation, see the Vietnam primer.

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