Interview with François Schnoebelen, Executive Director of École d'Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule

This week, we spoke with François Schnoebelen, the Executive Director of the storied École d'Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule in Siem Reap, a hospitality NGO that offers intensive training for young Cambodians interested in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Before moving to Cambodia, Schnoebelen built a successful career that spanned the HR and IT sectors, mostly in France with a stop in St. Bart’s. In Cambodia, he’s at the forefront of addressing the oft-mentioned skills gap, using his institution as a springboard for Cambodian youth to reach new heights in their careers. 

Brian: Could you tell us a little about yourself and what you like about living and working in Cambodia?

I started my career as a philosophy professor. This turned into human resources, IT, aerospace, then working for the Ministry of Finance in France, and the garment industry in Southeast Asia. I worked in social compliance for different companies and launched corporate universities in Europe, India, and Singapore.

My passion is skills development, and as the director of an NGO, my goal is to develop the skills of young Cambodians. We have two purposes: to give them a better future – some are vulnerable and from poor backgrounds – and to provide the best possible candidates for the industry. Paul Dubrule is quite famous in the industry, all of our students speak English and we develop trainings in five-star standards such as Forbes and LQA.

Like many expats, I love living in Cambodia. The main reason I stayed here is because I met my partner here. I learned the language when I was still in France, and I’m still learning how to read and write Khmer. I’m completely fond of the culture, I’m really interested and I really like this country, like many others I fell in love with it.

Since I work in hospitality, I feel that most Cambodians have this in their genes. It’s a blessing to teach hospitality to Cambodians, who have such a sense of hospitality naturally. That’s what makes my job so enjoyable, it’s all about working with heart and being genuine.

Brian: EHT celebrated 20 years. Can you tell us how EHT is evolving to equip itself to the new normal?

François: Covid affected us all, especially in Siem Reap. But we don’t turn away students. We’re an expensive school but at the same time our motto is to come the way you are. If you’re really motivated by hospitality, whatever your situation is, you’ll have a place with us. If you pass our test, we will take you.

The image of hospitality has taken a hit, though. When Covid-19 hit, people realized jobs in hospitality aren’t always that desirable, they’re fragile, and people can’t really dream of a future with these. They can’t think of borrowing from a bank for buying a house for instance. Why would they work in hospitality when their English skills can take them to the high-paying banking and insurance industries?

We saw a major drop in applicants, from 1,600 to 2,000 per 300 seats to about four or five hundred applicants per year.

To help combat some of these problems, we do a lot of communication in the sector organize career fairs, collaborating with NGOS and facilitating workshops to help students not only to find a job, but to choose decent employers post-graduation.

We offer five tracks: food and beverage service, culinary arts, pastry and bakery, front office and housekeeping, and travel agency operations. Instead of traditional teaching, we let the student study the lessons and return to the teacher with questions. So, the teacher simply provides answers to the students’ questions, and the students teach themselves through group discussions and projects. This way, the teacher can focus on assigning projects and bigger-picture ideas. This is a way to develop reverse pedagogy which provides better results on soft skills together with hard skills.

Education on soft skills is particularly important at our institution. Sometimes, when they arrive, the kids are bit shy, but we help them break out of their shill and become a bit more extraverted and confident. We teach that real luxury doesn’t lie on magnificent buildings but depends mostly on the quality of human relations. For example, when a waiter can joke with you a little, make you feel comfortable, this is more important than the decor of the restaurant itself. These skills need to come from within and we nurture that process.

Brian: How can the industry make itself more competitive for young Cambodian professionals?

François: Employers are getting better. For all the bad stories, there are good stories as well. Beautiful and highly motivating environments of work, promotions to management and executive positions, real international exposure and experiences abroad, support to open their own business – these are a few of the perks. More companies are now offering the new standard two-day weekends as well as better benefits.

It is certainly the sector’s loss if it sometimes is not attractive enough to our graduates. Indeed, some excellent well trained graduates have gone on to other industries.

There is a need for higher salaries for Cambodians. We need to revive the dream of working in hospitality, because it has faded and the shadow of Covid is still affecting the overall mood. Cambodians need to be promoted to higher positions, upper management and even executive level and General Management. Right now, they feel they are blocked at a certain level, which hinders the incentive to work in the industry.

Brian: I visited Siem Reap over Christmas and was very impressed with how it’s evolved since the major road reconstructions. How do you see it evolving?

François: I am quite optimistic tourism will come back in the future. I think the government is quite sensitive of the quality of tourists; we want much more responsible tourism. This is a style of tourism that respects nature and culture, and includes ideas like ecotourism as well. That is in the government’s agenda and we are completely in line with that.

Speaking of eco responsibility, actually EHT just became the first pilot school for vocational training schools in the world to prepare for the green flag of Eco Campus by FEE. Indeed, the school wanted to get a serious certification on environment responsibility but the highly recognized Green Flag certification didn’t exist for vocational schools in hospitality. After considering, we accepted together with FEE to set the standard for vocational schools and to be the world pilot school and hopefully the first-ever certified vocational school in FEE. This project is extremely exciting.

Brian: You will be speaking about staff retention strategies at the HR Forum on 3 February, could you tell us a bit about that?

François: Staff turnover has been unusually high in the sectors I work in, like hospitality and IT. I’ve worked at companies where turnover is really high and where sometimes it’s even too low. You can have too low turnover as well, because bringing in fresh faces is as important as developing your own talents and avoiding to replace them too often.

I’ve received results with a method I’ve used, which I will discuss in detail at the HR forum. For example, one company I worked with, which employed about 600 people, had a staff turnover rate of 43 percent, which I helped reduce to 17 percent.

The method involves taking a step back and looking at core issues, looking at figures, and applying very human-centric techniques to solve problems. Everything is a case-by-case situation.  You need to pay attention to the right questions first and apply quite well-thought and fine-tuned solutions. The worse ever would be to copy-paste a solution for a problem we haven’t spent enough time to analyze.

There will be many other lessons from my experience on that topic that I am very happy to share for the benefit of the business community. Of course, there were some mistakes also and all this together makes a kind of method, not a magic, but a method that could be quite efficient if applied well.

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