May 18, 2011

Ironing out an industrial shortfall


Teacher, Izzy Penn, and student at The Iron Workshop in Siem Reap
Cambodia lacks a manufacturing base in several key industries including steel, plastics and aluminium, causing unnecessary delays to major construction projects according to the managers of Siem Reap-based metal services company The Iron Workshop.

The need to import key products, especially steel and glass, is distorting prices paid by consumers for finished metal goods and inflating the costs of construction projects, said Iron Workshop technical advisor Franck Pouchol.

“When there are no wholesalers, you have to import basic items and the cost for the finished products rises significantly. You don’t know for certain what the quality will be until you receive the shipment and it distorts your timetable as imports are often delayed for various reasons.”

These headaches are most apparent in highly technical construction projects which often run over-budget and over-schedule because of supply bottlenecks and a lack of technical expertise among staff, he said.

Pouchol said many construction companies started to shy away from hiring local workers for big construction projects after previous experiences, a trend that persists to this day.

“As well as the need to import basic materials, the skill of workers in industries like steel became a concern. While the level of ability is there, their skills are far, far away from being what they should.”

The lack of skilled Cambodian manual workers is a problem The Iron Workshop is doing its part to address through an apprenticeship programme designed to pass on technical skills including welding to the younger generation.

“We train apprentices in basic skills like maths and geometry and teach them to operate machines to produce high quality finished iron products. These can be anything from furniture, fences ornaments, you name it we do it,” said Pouchol.

Founded in 2005 as an offshoot of Italian NGO Una Goccia per il Mondo, or One Drop for the World, The Iron Workshop produces custom made iron and stainless steel products ranging from home accessories to security gates, which are primarily sold to local hotels and businesses around Siem Reap. Presently, the Workshop is a self-sustaining social business, turning a profit and receiving no outside subsidies.

Profits generated through sales are used to expand training programmes at a school run by the company at its headquarters in Pouk District, including a woodworking program managed by retired South African accountant Issy Penn.

Penn told The Post that he didn’t anticipate the difficulties he would face in importing basic items, including some types of nails, when he began the training program earlier this year.

“It’s our basic difficulty, shipping goods and clearing goods is always a problem. They delay it forever.”

Students involved in welding and woodworking programmes run by The Iron Workshop are recruited from local schools and NGOs and paid a base wage of between US$55-70 per month depending on their level of expertise. This salary can rise to $120 per month for apprentices who graduate from the program and remain with the company.

Penn told The Post that between three to seven apprentices train at The Iron Workshop at any one time.

For his part, Pouchol gets the most satisfaction working with younger apprentices, or as he jokes, anyone who can put up with the “nasty, dusty and a bit unhealthy” surroundings of the workshop.

“Sometimes when you train older workers they have the attitude they have nothing left to improve, if you’ve been doing the same thing for twenty years you lose the desire to innovate.

"But Cambodia is a young country and with the right support the skills of workers will get better by the year.”


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