Myanmar’s shortage of ICT workers

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In September the Myanmar information and communications technology (ICT) sector will welcome two new foreign telecoms companies vying for their slice of consumers. Qatari Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor both promise to boost the mobile penetration rate into the mid-80% within three years, up from around 10% today. The move is expected to create demand for a number of ICT services companies, drawing upon the efforts of web designers, network professionals and programmers. However, as with all sectors in Myanmar, education and human resources are a major bottleneck and local talent is hard to find.

While towers and cables can be constructed over the next two to three years, it will take much longer to educate future employees for the ICT industry. “The sector desperately needs more human resources,” U Kyaw Soe, the principal of the Telecommunications and Postal Training Centre, told OBG. The Centre provides employee training for the Myanmar Post and Telecoms (MPT), which until now has been the local telco monopoly. “This will be our biggest challenge over the coming years,” he said.

Myanmar’s education system has deteriorated over the past 50 years partly because of the exodus of teachers and the dissipation of university campuses over security concerns. Anti-government protests and marches often began at universities and were led by students. In Yangon, the largest city, most university compounds are spread many kilometres away from each other.

The drain on education and talent is a major concern across all sectors, but in the ICT sector, where the pace of expansion and change can eclipse that of other industries, it will be a more pressing concern.

MPT will soon face three new competitors in the mobile segment: Ooredoo, Telenor and a local firm, Yatanarpon, which to date has operated as an internet service provider. Any experienced employees of MPT will undoubtedly be sized up by the newcomers. Foreign companies, especially, will likely offer a more desirable package, and threaten to steal away talent.

The local players have a first-mover advantage, having been the only ICT companies to operate in Myanmar for the past 50 years. The infrastructure and experience of these firms can be leveraged to provide a head start in the race for market share, but come mid-September, Telenor and Ooredoo will be viable alternatives.

“Time is running out fast,” said Paul Crilley, a telecoms consultant who works with Yatanarpon and has been based in Myanmar for the past 16 years. “We need to change radically if we want to stand a chance against the international giants,” he told OBG.

It is estimated that 8000-10,000 students graduate in computing-related degrees every year, but organisations such as the Myanmar Computing Federation (MCF) are pushing to boost this number and revolutionise the education system to include much more focus on the skills required in a modern business environment.

“We are trying to introduce IT education into primary school syllabuses, but there is a lack of budget and other constraints,” said Zaw Min Oo, secretary-general of the MCF, in an interview with OBG. “The most important thing is ICT education.”

The state coffers are all but empty in Myanmar, as increased gas exports have only recently begun to ramp up and access to external debt has been closed for decades. The result has left a dismantled education system and no easily accessible funds to improve it from within.

The responsibilities of the foreign telecoms giants are expected to be clarified once the details of the telecoms law, passed by parliament in late August, are made public. It is likely that training and job creation will be among the requirements for their entry.

“The most important thing is ICT education,” said Min Oo.

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