ECONOMY

SVVE: Work, education linked

Work is intrinsically linked with education, so we must create knowledgeable workers who will support the development of enterprises, says Yiannis Mylonas, president of the Federation of Industries of Northern Greece (SVVE). In an interview with Kathimerini, he discusses the low unemployment rates in Thrace and considers the risk in seeking cheap scientific human resources from abroad. Last year your statements on unemployment and labor relations in northern Greece created a wave of reactions. Is the problem as big now and are you adamant in your views? Problems remain the same. Unemployment in northern Greece is very high. Thessaloniki has huge a jobless rate due to deindustrialization. In Kilkis, where our company is based, unemployment stands at 51 percent. It’s the same in western Macedonia. In Thrace the figures are tragic; there are companies fighting for survival. We cannot consider labor issues taboo and stop talking about them. Labor issues are today connected with education issues more than anyone can imagine. Our experience from people coming to work for us is that their knowledge based on their degrees is much lower than expected. Are you talking about young people? Yes, young university graduates. Technical college (TEI) graduates are more down-to-earth. They are aware of their weaknesses and their lack of high-level knowledge. They realize that the company must invest in them, too, so that they reach a certain standard. So, they are willing to enter a trial period? Exactly. Yet we do not see this in economics graduates. It is a mentality issue. The target is to improve the graduate’s knowledge and skills, not just in industry but in tourism, too. How can we have high-quality tourism without a university for tourism professions? While in Bulgaria there is a university-level school of good standard… Some people misunderstood me when I said we have not realized that the issue of low cost is history. We blame the industries for relocating to find cheap labor and people do not realize that we must stop enterprises from seeking cheap scientific staff abroad, too. This will not happen overnight, but it is a serious risk. We must therefore target education before it is too late. Workers who know their jobs and are eager to work give me great optimism [about the future]. That is not because they are better paid than others but because they understand that problems are not solved with chants and mottos; you fight for it from the inside, not from the outside. What can be done for those who are on the outside or jobless? The government must protect them and make them feel safe. Greece needs a safety framework. It is not only layoffs without explanation, but also company restructuring affecting employees must have certain limitations imposed on them. Yet if a company has to restructure to survive, dogmatic opinions is not the right response. After all, unemployment is dealt with only through the creation of new enterprises. SVVE is seen as one of the toughest employer associations. No businessman and no industry can be satisfied with a problematic environment. We in northern Greece are often accused of moaning about the Athens-centered state. People do not realize our anxiety about the staff we employ and what will happen in five or 10 years. This worry should not be disputed; we are interested in healthy entrepreneurship. Your own company is active in the Balkans. What are the main labor differences you can spot? Labor conditions abroad are much more liberal; well-being is not an issue, survival is. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans people work out of need, so people behave differently. There are certain differences from country to country. I would say that in Greece employees are more productive. Out of all the plants we have in the Balkans, the most productive ones are in Greece. The best workers are in Albania, as they consider that improving their life is connected with the improvement of the company. In other countries we see mentality problems. Do you think there is a development prospect? I am optimistic but look at what is going on: We see sectors shrinking and we knew it could not have been otherwise. There were two options for companies: innovative investment or continuing [as is] for as long as possible. Nevertheless, in northern Greece there are high-technology companies with internal production that are little known and are 90 to 95 percent exporters. They are based in Drama, Alexandroupolis, Kilkis etc. They employ specialized staff and produce automation systems or construction material products that are very competitive. We must therefore examine how to create people with knowledge who will support such enterprises. Even in textiles there are companies which manage to work with the best-known fashion names in Europe because they have the know-how. They produce models within three days, send them to catwalks and within two weeks they deliver to all countries. The textile side which relied on knowledge and investment in human capital eventually survives and expands. What are your thoughts on subsidizing employment? We asked the government to subsidize work. It often is the entrepreneurs’ fault: If they are not willing to change and make a new start using their staff, no measure can force them to. Also in recent years the banking system has become stricter and companies which could have survived and maintained jobs see their end coming faster. Yet there is no subsidy policy. Employees get nothing. What must change then? We say: «Subsidize the work of new scientists, send us graduates at a minimal cost for a year and let us train them and use their skills.» Today this is feasible only through some programs for technical college graduates. I think that out of the 100 TEI graduates who had work experience in factories, 90 remained in the same enterprise. Yet companies by themselves could not have hired 90 TEI graduates. It is therefore important that the state subsidize this work.