Learning for success? Why Croatia has a huge upsurge of economic emigration

Zadar, Croatia (Tim Ertl, CC BY-NC-ND)

Arrival of summer in Croatia brings the problem of working force in certain fields. It is primarily a problem in tourism, construction and agriculture, but also in other sectors.

Employers who could not or did not want to pay domestic workers, which have moved abroad massively in recent years, employ significantly cheaper workers from the east of the European continent. It is surprising to hear again that the underlying problem in this area lies in the inconsistency of the labor market system. Thousands of young people leave Croatia, and they do not have a problem in finding jobs the Western European with their qualifications.

In January 2018, Croatia had an average of 195,400 unemployed persons. The largest amount is among the 30-50 year old, i.e. 76,823 persons. The largest drop in the unemployment as compared to January 2017 (21.13 per cent) is visible within persons who have completed three years’ high school education. There is also a noticeable decrease in unemployment (16.7 per cent) in persons with completed higher education. However, this is not overwhelmingly due to the new job positions, but because of large emigration cycles. The difficulty of finding a worker was a problem for almost half of all employers (49 per cent) interviewed in an annual poll among the employers done by the Ministry of Labor and Pension System. This problem was more commonly encountered by employers in the private sector (almost 60 per cent). The most common difficulties are the lack of candidates with the required work experience and lack of candidates with a suitable educational path/program.

As the main challenges and characteristics of the contemporary European labor market are: quality of elementary education; prevention of early school disruption; creation of new jobs due to new technologies, increasing use of renewable energy sources — creation of so-called “green jobs”; focus on lifelong development of competences. International Labor Organization defines employability as a set of knowledge, expertise and the ability to gain and retain a job, professional progresses, finding another job if it is released, or entry into the labor market at various times of its working and life cycle. Only education system can respond to these challenges and prepare young people to face the labor market. In Croatia more than 65 per cent of young people are educated in the vocational education system, thus the VET system is crucial to the creation and accumulation of human capital as a precondition for economic development and growth, better quality employment and social goals.

Obviously, this is a general picture and more details may be found in particular industrial branches. Croatia faces difficult situation: on one side, 180 thousand or 10.8 per cent of the unemployed is above the EU average, and on the other, there is an incredible lack of labor force and pressure on employers to import labor. Today, education does not match the needs of the labor market. Statistics show that 68 per cent of young unemployed in Croatia have a secondary education or higher. Most of the 15,000 jobs posted each day by the Employment Office require secondary or lower education. That is why vocational education is a key to bring employers and education experts together. The need for encouraging cooperation between higher education and the economy, i.e. the labor market, has been recognized by the European Union as one of the key contributions to the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy. For this reason, in 2008, the University-Business Forum initiative was launched, with the aim of encouraging the institutional cooperation of these two sectors. First such forum was held in Croatia in autumn 2017.

The system itself has a lot of disadvantages, especially due to the inertness of education, one of the basic reasons why Croatia has a problem with its workforce and its qualification in relation to the needs of the real sector. The thesis on the non-alignment of Croatian education system and the labor market is a complex issue to be addressed through at least two aspects. First, it is a question of content that is being taught and its usefulness for each individual and his active participation in society. It cannot be overly praised because its educational programs are mostly old and overwhelmed by facts. Nowadays education system doesn’t take into account the real needs of society but focuses on the current staffing opportunities and content preferences within the institutions themselves.

Unfortunately, cooperation between the economy and educational institutions is not sufficiently developed at both national and regional levels. The attitude of the whole society towards entrepreneurs is negative, so young people are not ready to open businesses themselves. Moreover, in Croatia, fear of failure is still present in the convicting environment, and such a culture is difficult to change. And there is just a reading of the role of higher education institutions, which should promote entrepreneurial culture during this formative period with young people. Equally, close co-operation between the economy and education at all levels would certainly encourage change in perception of entrepreneurship and encourage young people to self-perpetuation through entrepreneurship.

Unlike higher education programs in some developed EU countries, Croatian programs almost do not have the built-in professional practice nor are ready to better prepare students for their work. There are, of course, positive examples. Recently, since the Law on the Croatian Qualification Framework has been passed and has introduced a different approach to the design of the program. Thirty new high school vocational programs should be highlighted here as an example of good practice that should be followed by all programs. Still, it is clear that the cooperation between the academic and business sector is mainly focused on student practices, guest lectures and organization of various fairs. Certainly, this is not enough and it should also be emphasized that cooperation is the least developed in the field of innovation and research. One of the reasons for poor cooperation is the lack of engagement of academic and business actors. There are no motivating mechanisms in the economics or academic institutions. In other EU countries, not to mention the rest of the world, there are entire departments at colleges that deal solely with the development of co-operation with the businesses, while employers have employees responsible for co-operating with higher education institutions.

Structure of enrolment quotas and their alignment with the future needs of society is the second biggest problem. Although such planning is difficult and partly unpredictable, making policy in Croatia for the last twenty years has been done without such predictions and was created by the institutions themselves. This is so because there was no real political will for the structure of public investment in educational programs to stimulate the welfare of society, and there was a need to keep the status quo within the state institutions. Finally, it would be unreasonable to think that the only solution is changing the subscription quotas, not the continuous recognition of personal potentials.

There is a problem on both sides, though. The system cannot dwell on the short-term needs of the market, as it is not the reference framework of the education system. There is only a possibility of harmonizing in the medium or longer timeframe. To pay a little attention to the responsibility of employers who would always want to outsource labor force training to the state and reducing costs. This is impossible in practice, although it is true that Croatian education system is not all-rounded in all types of education. While there is a need for a certain reform of approach, one should not go to another extreme once something is done. The practice system with the learning of types of practical skills, which will be improved through the work, really needs to be improved. The direction of curricular reform, at least in vocational education, was fairly good and comprehensive.

However, although the general quality of education matters, sometimes may create problems. Poland, for example, is a society that showed greater interest in the higher education and the market for education services expanded. Today it shows signs of overeducation. A diploma is no longer something distinctive and a key asset; prospective employee is determined by other skills, his/her abilities and general impressions, lifestyle and efficiency.

Vedran Obućina is an analyst and a journalist specializing in the Croatian and Middle East domestic and foreign affairs. He is the Secretary of the Society for Mediterranean Studies at the University of Rijeka and a Foreign Affairs Analyst at The Atlantic Post.

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