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Back to School

In a labor market without compass, Macedonians are seeking to requalify for new jobs and hoping the country’s education system will catch up with the changing world. [Also in Russian.] by Ljubica Grozdanovska 21 August 2007 SKOPJE, Macedonia | A man with a bachelor’s degree in electro-technology drives a taxi in the city. Another man with a diploma in economics spends his days toiling as a construction worker. Thousands of other educated Macedonians find themselves with no jobs at all.

There is chaos in the labor market, and no clear strategy for untangling it.

Poverty, the post-communism transition process, and a range of modern technology and business trends have changed the criteria for employment in Macedonia. Information technology, engineering, and finance-based fields are boasting increasing numbers of job offerings, and even the more traditional vocational fields require new skills applicable in the globalizing world.

Low-tech jobs in Macedonia.
But Macedonia doesn’t have many workers equipped with the training that new job positions demand, especially posts at foreign and transnational companies that are establishing themselves in the country. Consequently, Macedonia has an unemployment rate of 36 percent, the 15th highest in the world and the highest in Europe.

Now, many Macedonians who are watching their jobs slip away are looking for salvation in job requalification. This means going back to school to learn how to use computers, speak English, or acquire other new, necessary skills – a daunting process for many adult workers instilled with years of traditional education and job experience.

For their part, the government, NGOS, schools, and businesses are piecing together programs to requalify workers. But the Ministry of Sciences and Education has been slow to change the curriculum for current students, leaving them upon graduation to seek further education or requalification.

Only recently have schools focused on offering current students more hands-on, practical skills. And only this year have universities called for more students to study in technology fields.

With that call, however, universities also face the reality that they must revise and update the curricula of technology courses. Otherwise, more graduates will enter the job market unprepared.

“I am very disappointed, because I have put a lot of effort to finish the [degree] in regular time and with a high average,” says the graduate-turned-cab driver. “I have lived with the expectation that I would find some adequate job position. And, I still do. As a cab driver I earn enough. But the search for better job will never stop.”

MEETING DEMANDS

At 52 years old, Florika Krstevska is employed as an accountant. Four years ago, she took courses and subsequent exams for computer usage and English language. She learned how to use a computer to the extent that her job requires, but she says she feels too old to learn anything else. Now, she is scared she will lose her job, especially after the company she works for recently employed five new co-workers between the ages of 23 and 27.

“I hope to keep [my job] for the next few years, for at least to earn my pension,” Krstevska says.

Krstevska has reason to be concerned about job security. According to the Macedonia’s Bureau of Statistics, out of 902,588 citizens among the active, or working-age, population, 323,287 are unemployed. Most of the unemployed are educated at the high school level or above – 24,206 are university graduates – yet many are considered unqualified for their chosen fields of work.

Facing such dire statistics, job requalification – or adult education – has become a crucial aspect of the Macedonian job market. In 2005, the government acknowledged the importance of offering adult education opportunities in a broad announcement of economic reforms. Requalification courses in specific job areas, such as information technology, accounting, or engineering, are offered now under the auspices of local government units, often at public schools.

Several international organizations have stepped in to help. Since 1997, the European Commission has offered funding for enhancing vocational education and training and establishing a national qualification system. In 2005 and 2006, the United Nations Development Program partnered with both national and local governments in Macedonia to promote “subsidies for education and re-qualification, with emphasized stimulation of young unemployed persons.”

Still, the statewide requalification system isn’t as far-reaching as the unemployment rate demands. Subsequently, the private sector has been forced to dip its hands into the training mix to meet its own needs.

When they are unable to find any qualified employees, companies in Macedonia often demand that new workers participate in training to learn skills they have never acquired. The businesses themselves frequently oversee the necessary training.

But companies say they are growing weary of having to offer supplementary education. Others don’t have the time, money, or manpower to oversee qualification. Businesses say they would rather have enhanced requalification support from the government, or be able to hire from a robust, already-skilled population

Dejan Bogoeski, a manager at the telecommunications company Netfon in Skopje, started work as a lawyer but with training and requalification, took on his current job six months ago. Today, he insists that worker are trained properly but notes that qualified workers are hard to find.

“The newly employed are trained for a month. We have trainings even for a salesman. It’s usually done by senior workers,” Bogoeski says. “It’s a big problem to find well-qualified staff in Macedonia. The candidates have theoretical knowledge, but the practice is what is lacking always.”

MISEDUCATION

This lack of practice among workers also stems from Macedonia’s struggling education system and its focus on outdated curricula. Consequently, older workers aren’t the only ones trying to earn new qualifications. As a report compiled for the Ministry of Finance in 2004 shows, the highest unemployment rates are in the age brackets of 20 to 24 (72.8 percent rate) and 25 to 29 (62.5 percent rate).

Dijana Veljanovska, who lives in Skopje, is a 28-year-old graduate of a journalism program. She never had the opportunity to work as journalist, however, because she quickly realized job demands are in other fields.

So three months ago, she finished a course in accounting and now works for an education center. In her accounting class were people of all ages trained in fields that included philosophy and law, as well some people trained as accountants years ago who had realized their skills were lacking.

“There was one 45-year-old man who worked in a bank, and a 37-year-old woman which worked in a broker’s company. The purpose of them being there was just that the former accountants were either fired or left their jobs. So, they needed to be re-qualified,” she says.

Veljanovska is one of the numerous recent graduates lamenting the Macedonian education system’s lack of emphasis on current job market’s demands. Universities still produce specialists in the humanities rather than technology- or business-related fields. In 2007 at St. Cyril and Methodius University, 735 students graduated with a degree in economics, 562 in philosophy, and 325 in law. At St. Kliment Ohridski University, however, only 112 students graduated in technical engineering.

“We have inflation of jurists and economists,” says Radmil Polenakovic, a professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Career Center at St. Cyril and Methodius. “When companies … entered the market, they had a demand for engineers, which Macedonia at that point couldn’t provide.”

In April 2007, the government took steps to change this. At St. Cyril and Methodius, the quota in the field of electronics and IT technology was for 856 students – the second-highest quota among all departments. Moreover, within the same department, the government announced in early July an increased quota for informatics and computer engineering students; the number jumped from 96 to 160.

But at 1,200 students, the highest overall quota was in mathematics and natural sciences, followed by 964 students in the field of philology, or the study of language. The number in economy fell just shy of the electronics and IT quota.

Moreover, while the call for students might indicate the government’s acknowledgement of market demands, students encouraged to enroll in technology fields face a lack of quality instruction and curricula. Departments in technology, engineering, and business frequently do not have a sufficient number of experts to guide students and offer outdated information, learning toward traditional theory rather than modern, practical skills.

Students in electro-technical studies, for instance, say they learn about antiquated energy production technology. One 31-year-old graduate student says that in his courses, he studied out-dated forms of reversible hydro-power plants, only to learn from friends in Europe how behind the times Macedonian electricity plants really were.

“And we also have never visited any type of power production facility,” the student says.

The curricula difficulties extend into secondary education, where skills in technology and business aren’t central classroom priorities. But through the Center for Profiled Education and Training (CPEF), which launched in February under the Ministry of Education and Science, curricula enhancements are under way.

CPEF’s goal is to introduce more practical learning to enhance students’ hands-on abilities, helping prepare them for the labor market. Youth studying electronics, for instance, will be given practical assignments, like installing wiring in a house or repairing different types of machines.

CPEF also hopes to introduce supplementary workshops in which students can gain even more practice. Some of these workshops could involve other job organizations. The Craftsman’s Chamber of Macedonia, for instance, is interested in cooperating with CPEF to increase the level of practical knowledge of pupils.

“Developing skills for pupils in high schools is most important for us. They have practical learning now, and depending on the profile of the study it varies from 15 to 18 percent [of the curriculum],” said Violeta Grujevska, who works for CPEF. “But that’s not enough. They have to have more.”

CPEF also is beginning work in adult education, preparing training packages for older workers seeking requalification. It offers training services to companies wishing to hire skilled workers, but Grujevska said some companies have lacked interest in collaboration.

Still, some have taken note of the new center and have agreed to join forces with it to combat the labor crisis.

“Johnson Controls [is] asking for training for electrical technicians and for mechanical technicians,” Grujevska says of a U.S.-based producer of electrical interiors that has invested in Macedonia. “And some other companies which are reformed and in which lots of people lost their jobs are willing to cooperate with us.”

Still, Macedonia is locked in a vicious development cycle, as it endeavors simultaneously to offer workers requalification and to adjust the education curricula to meet current job demands so that requalification will not be as urgently needed. Until efforts improve and stabilize, the unemployment rate likely will remain high – leaving thousands of Macedonians caught in a modern world without the skills to take advantage of it.
Ljubica Grozdanovska is a freelance journalist based in Skopje.
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