In many economies of the Balkans high formal unemployment is often blamed on insufficient skills in the labor force. But this intuitive diagnosis glosses over two fundamental questions, namely: why are workers not training themselves to find jobs, and why aren’t firms investing in upgrading the skills of their employees? In other words, the market seems to be failing by not allocating resources where high returns can be found. In this blog post, we cast doubt on the diagnosis and look beyond the skills gap explanation to high unemployment in the Western Balkans. But this is not unique to the Balkans. Take the US construction industry, which is among the most productive in the world even though it employs many relatively low skilled workers, often immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, who improved their individual productivity several fold by migrating – not upgrading skills.
There is no doubt about the problem as throughout the region unemployment – particularly formal – remains unacceptably high. Serbia is a case in point: Out of a population of 7.2 million people and a workforce of 4.5 million, only 710,000 Serbians have a formal, private sector job. If you add some 380,000 ‘sole proprietors’ – basically people who run mini-shops – you get to around 1.1 million people in the formal private sector. That means that the livelihood of the whole country is built around this 15 percent of the population. Can it really be that firms are still not able to find sufficiently skilled employees in the large remaining pool, especially given that Serbia has decent education results? If finding skilled workers in Serbia is like looking for needles in a haystack, there are surely a lot of needles to be found.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Ten years ago this month the European Union expanded to include 10 new members - Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovak Republic and Slovenia. It was the largest expansion in the EU's history in terms of population and area, and of historic importance in that it brought into one Union countries that had formerly been on different sides of the Iron Curtain.
Given the Eurozone crisis from which the EU is slowly recovering, it is natural to ask if EU membership has benefitted the 2004 entrants.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Saving for old age is important in countries where longevity is increasing. Countries in Central Europe and the Baltics emerged from the economic transition of the 1990s recognizing that they needed to encourage their workforce to retire later and save more in order to be comfortable in old age. To this end, they modified their pay as you go pension systems which collects taxes from workers to pay retirees (the "first pillar") to create an additional or "second pillar" of individual pension accounts funded by taxes. As these second pillar pension accounts were the private property of individual workers, they were expected to encourage saving. Over time as these savings grew, it would be possible to reduce the pensions paid by the government from the first pillar without reducing the standard of living for pensioners who would be able to rely on complementary pensions from their private saving in the second pillar. Typically, a share of payroll tax receipts was redirected to finance individual pension saving accounts. This resulted in revenue shortfalls in pay as you go you pension schemes, and most governments raised additional debt to meet their obligations which was in turn held by the companies who were managing the pension savings on behalf of employees. However, since the economies were growing rapidly, fiscal deficits were generally kept manageable, easing concerns about additional debt.
Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Economic growth has returned to Central Europe and the Baltics. With the exception of Slovenia, all countries are expected to see positive growth in 2014 - ranging from a tepid 0.8% in Croatia, to more respectable growth rates of 2.2% in Romania and 2.8% in Poland, to highs of 3-4.5% percent in the Baltic Republics. Europe, more broadly, is also turning the corner and is expected to grow at around 1.5%.
Amidst this much welcome growth, however, one question remains: will economic growth be good for the bottom 40 percent and can they expect to see their incomes grow?
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the results from the most recent assessment of mathematics, reading, and science competencies of 15 year-olds (the Program for international Student Assessment, PISA) last December, it held encouraging news for the European Union’s newest members. Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic scored above the OECD average and ahead of many richer European Union neighbors. Compared to previous assessments, the 2012 scores of most countries in Central Europe and the Baltics were up (as they were in Turkey, as Wiseman et al highlighted in this blog recently). Improvements were particularly marked in Bulgaria and Romania, traditionally the weakest PISA achievers in the EU, as well as well-performing Poland and Estonia. Only Slovakia and Hungary saw declines (see chart with PISA mathematics scores).
Collectively, the 10 indicators in Doing Business 2014 are a great tool for assessing the ease of doing business in countries and measuring the quality of their regulations.
The results can be surprising for some countries in the European Union (EU): Would you ever consider that the most difficult country to start a business in the EU is Austria? That Italy is the worst place to pay taxes? That one of the top countries in protecting investors is Slovenia? Or that Poland is the global runner-up in providing information about credit?
When you are young and still in school, it’s hard to think of ways you can change people’s thinking at the global level. But sometimes, all you need is a video camera and Internet access.
Today, the winners of the European Development Days video contest “Young voices against poverty,” are being recognized for their contributions to the dialogue on global poverty.