Education systems of Balkan countries fall short of the requirements of labor markets

ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatian teenager Kristina Tomkic is completing her days at hairdressers’ school, but accepts that with 5,000 too many hairdressers on the local market she may never work as one. «I know it’s hard to find a job in my profession but I love contacts with people and I hope my skills and will to work will eventually prevail,» she said. Like some of Croatia’s trained hairdressers, she may eventually find a job as a pedicurist or a saleswoman. But her prospects illustrate a wider problem in the Balkans and beyond: an educational pipeline that does not suit the needs of the economy. Rigid labor markets and a system that has not been reformed since communist times are hampering many in the Balkans, creating gaps on regional labor markets that have been widened by a huge outflow of people going west in search of better pay. «The skills people learn in Balkan countries do not correspond with the demands of the economies,» said Goran Saravanja, an analyst at CAIB investment bank. «In addition, labor markets in most countries are quite rigid, which makes employment more costly for entrepreneurs.» Croatia is expected to join the EU around 2010, but analysts warn that its economy may suffer a post-accession shock unless it restructures and its work force becomes much more adaptable. Pharmacists, computer experts, civil engineers, architects and experienced accountants are among rare professions in Croatia that enjoy a comfortable position on the labor market and can find a job within a month or two. Stanko Berecki, headmaster at Tomkic’s school, is keenly aware of the problem: «Most of Croatia’s high schools could close down for five years and the job market would not suffer a shortage of people. It means the problem is not just about hairdressers, but about our education system,» he said. In an effort to alleviate the problem and draw in local and foreign investors, Croatia will this month launch a website, called Labor Market Monitoring (LMM), aimed at helping to bring its post-communist work force into line with the market. Officials agree it will be a small start. Vladimir Gligorov of the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies said new technologies and new post-communist economic structures require a rejuvenated educational framework, but so far little has been done. «No major investment in human capital has taken place in the region, only to some extent in Bulgaria. That would certainly be the best reform course for the supply side of the labor market, but such a reform takes time… and doesn’t change things overnight,» Gligorov said. Hunger for specialists Even with reform, industry officials in Bulgaria, which joined the EU this year, complain the system is still inadequate. «There is real hunger for IT specialists and engineers, but only 4 percent of all subjects offered in high schools are on technologies. The state just won’t consider what the market needs,» said Dikran Tebeyan, deputy chairman of the Bulgarian Industrial Chamber. Serbia is, according to World Bank experts, virtually an identical example. «Highly educated people, mostly in financial and other sophisticated services, can find jobs. Others do not have an easy time,» Gligorov said. Romania’s work force is 4.7 million people. Some 2 million workers went abroad in recent years, causing a labor shortage in the Black Sea state, especially in construction. Similarly, many Bulgarians have gone to work in Greece or Spain. The wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia and its industrial facilities in the 1990s prompted many young people to opt for an education in humanities, instead of natural or technical sciences. «The result is hyperproduction of certain specialties with slim chances to find employment easily,» Gligorov said. Croatia’s new website will provide availability and salary ranges across professions in each of the 21 counties, as well as legal obligations investors must fulfill when employing locals. Mirela Mrvelj from the state Agency for Foreign Investments said this is just the first step. «We’re aware that what our labor market offers today is not overly attractive to investors. That’s why our next step will be to see what skills are mostly sought by investors and what kind of industries we want to develop, and then, as a long-term goal, to model education along those lines,» Mrvelj told Reuters. However, the problem may not just be a matter of education. «Companies complain about an inadequate labor force but, with some rare exceptions, instead of offering help and ideas on how to change the situation, they mostly expect the state to solve the problem for them,» said Olga Lui from the Croatian Chamber of Crafts. «This is not common only in the Balkans. There are wide discussions throughout Europe on how the private sector could contribute more in honing people’s skills,» Gligorov noted.