The ASEAN Community is scheduled to come into orbit by the end of 2015 and with it the ambitious goal of having freer flow of skilled labour within the region.

But in Vietnam, experts say there will be no big bang to relieve the manpower crunch in the tourism sector come Jan 1, 2016.

Among the businesses hit by the talent crunch is the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi. The luxury hotel in Vietnam’s capital has been hunting for a director of engineering for six months and counting.

“I’ve been interviewing half a dozen people and seen 20 candidates from both within and outside the industry, ” said Guy Poujoulat, General Manager, Sofitel Plaza Hanoi. “But I haven't been able to find the right fit.”

The squeeze stretches across Vietnam’s young tourism industry and could be relieved by the ASEAN Community's promise of a freer, if not free flow, of skilled labour.

“Of course Dec 31 is just the starting point,” said Pham Thi Thu Hang, Secretary-General, Vietnam Chamber Of Commerce & Industry. “It will be a long development process and we’ll have to consider a long-term plan and strategy to make the most of this opportunity.”

Before a Vietnamese bartender can easily find work in Malaysia or Indonesia, for instance, ASEAN countries need to agree on what makes a skilled bartender. The technical nightmare of having 10 countries - and their myriad educational, vocational and professional agencies - agreeing on standards will be a challenge.

Local laws and regulations are another, perhaps greater, hurdle. Employers here say hiring ASEAN professionals is not getting easier.

In fact, it is harder to hire foreigners, because of the difficulty of getting work permits. And more than one analyst has hinted at the stronger protectionist forces at play in Vietnam’s labour market today.

“Vietnam is still in a confusing state in terms of the labour market,” said Kai Marcus Schröter, General Director, HTM Management Consultancy. “Rather than opening up and integrating in the competitive labour market, they try to control the labour market – be it for Vietnamese going abroad, as well as for foreign workers coming into Vietnam.”

For businesses in the tourism sector, it is a squeeze on both sides: A struggle to find local talent, and bottlenecks in the search abroad. “Change won’t come on Jan 1,” said Poujoulat. “But we hope for some kind of improvement in the course of next year.”

Whether it is this year or the next, ASEAN leaders face having to deliver tangible benefits before hope fizzles out.

By Tan Qiuyi - Channel News Asia - December 30, 30