"Students here don't drop out," said Sim Sorin, deputy director of the
Japanese Volunteer Center Santepheap School for Mechanics (JVC). The school and workshop
has found the perfect balance of theory and practice.
First year student Ratana, second from left, tinkers with a training engine. "I have come here to learn a life skill," he says.
Admission to the school is based on examination in general culture, mathematics,
philosophy and chemistry. Sorin noted "a lot of young, poor Khmers come to sit
the examination". Last year only 60 pupils were admitted out of 400 hopefuls:
20 for welding, 40 for car repair.
Chan Sopheak, 20, comes from Kampong Cham province. She stopped school at grade ten
for financial reasons. "I study here because I don't have to pay money for lessons.
Now I am specialized at repairing starter motors."
Sopheak lives and eats at the school. She studies theory from 7:30am till 11 am and
practice from 2pm till 4pm.
Sorin explains the nuts and bolts of their success: "The first thing we depend
on is good staff," he says with a smile.
The post-graduate mechanics working in the garage operate in eight teams, each with
its own leader, supervised by Koeitouch, head of mechanics and part of the all-Khmer
At the end of training each day the pupils are required to write down what they have
learnt in English and Khmer in the class log book.
In the 1980s the technical school was set up to train staff from the Ministry of
Public Works and Transport (which owns the school and workshop) in repair maintenance
for some 1,000 run-down Soviet trucks which were needed by the government for food
distribution for people facing starvation after the Pol Pot period. In 1990 the school
started accepting students from the public.
As the role of the workshop changed to repairing civilian vehicles it started to
make money. Since 1999 the various Japanese donors, which started and funded the
project through the JVC, have been reducing the amount of their support and the operation
is now self-sufficient. Since 1985 when the project began, the JVC has injected an
estimated $3 million.
At the JVC workshop mechanics work intently, supervised by a team leader.
The garage is popular with several embassies, and with over 200 vehicles being repaired
every month the income generated covers all of the operational costs and salaries.
Students don't pay for their education.
Tith Sangha started teaching at the school in 1992 and is a government employee.
"I have not been paid since 1997 by the government until May this year."
He is paid $100 a month by the JVC.
Sorin said that strict cost cutting, quality control, and up to date technology meant
the school cleared enough money to survive. "The embassies come here with their
cars because we have the higher technological capability."
Most graduates find jobs earning $70 to $110 on completing the course, according
to their teachers. "The graduates are in demand by hotels, factories and garages
for their experience in machine maintenance," says Sorin . Many were headhunted
in their final year and some set up their own businesses.
Thengsum Limhen, 20, who is learning car-repairing skills, said: "I want to
be a repairer for some company in Phnom Penh, or if I have money, I would open my
own welding shop." She comes from Kampong Thom province. She is one of the two
successful applicants out of 20 women.
Hiroshima City local government invites teachers from Santepheap to attend seven-month
training courses in Japan. Over ten years 18 teachers have gone to study advanced
"We were lucky to meet people willing to commit," said Yokiko Yonekura
of the JVC referring to the teaching staff at the school and the support from Hiroshima.
Sorin spends some time at other schools in Phnom Penh, such as the Russey Keo Industrial
Technical College. "They plan to upgrade quality in line with the JVC but they
have problems with resources. Bad quality work is a problem for government-run vocational
The Ministry of Education Youth and Sports runs the college at Russey Keo. One source,
wishing to remain unnamed said that the school received just $550 a year to cover
Four-wheel-drive vehicles in pieces are a common sight at Santepheap.
Nopthim, 51, who teaches at this college, is paid $10 a month. He grows vegetables
for sale and works in a garage in the afternoons. In the main workshop, gleaming
equipment provided by the Asian Development Bank is puzzled over by clusters of students.
"There's plenty of equipment, but no instructors," said Nopthim.
One student at Russey Keo complained: "We have good machines, but we can only
look at them, not use them."
Yamaguchi Ryo, from the Hiroshima Prefectural Government, was visiting Russey Keo
as well as the school at Santepheap. He said: "The big difference between this
school and the JVC is where the budget comes from."