THE COUNTRY with the highest unemployment rate in the European Union is opening its gates to workers from other countries.
A major car-maker in Slovakia has already hired workers from Romania and started searching for more in other Balkan countries, while foreign investors are warning about the growing lack of qualified labour in the region.
"There are many investors from different countries now, so we have had some difficulty finding skilled labour in Slovakia," Yong-Kyu Park, ambassador of the Republic of Korea, home of the car-maker Kia, told The Slovak Spectator.
The lack of qualified labour might become more evident when Korean company Samsung and its sub-suppliers start hiring later this year, the ambassador said.
"Samsung needs several hundred more workers by the end of this year, but unfortunately they cannot find enough skilled Slovak workers, so they have to import the workers from Romania, Bulgaria and other countries," Park said.
Overall, it is becoming clear that there is a lack of qualified and skilled manpower with sufficient education and experience in the engineering and automotive industries, Dušan Dvořák, Kia Motors Slovakia spokesman, told The Slovak Spectator.
Kia has wrapped up its main recruiting process, so the lack of qualified labour has not yet interfered with the company's hiring, but the situation might change soon, according to Dvořák.
"Our company plans to increase production capacity to 300,000 vehicles per year and that means hiring additional workforce," Dvořák said. "If the situation does not change by then, it could definitely pose a problem."
Kia is still seeking people to fill in operator positions in its maintenance department and engine shop, as the carmaker is expanding its production capacity by 100,000 engines per year. At the administration level, the company still needs to fill engineering specialist positions in its assembly and IT departments.
"To cover these particular areas, we have experienced some level of difficulty," Dvořák said.
The PSA Peugeot-Citroen car-maker in Trnava has employed approximately 100 Romanian workers since May, the Hospodárske Noviny daily wrote.
The trend of hiring foreign labourers will continue, said Dalibor Jakuš, managing director of the Profesia job-search website. The positive effect of the changes is that the Slovak labour market is becoming more open and flexible.
"The downside of the situation is that in the country with almost the highest unemployment rate in the EU, we need to import foreign workers for factories, while the unemployable portion of our population remains quite large," he told The Slovak Spectator.
In May, Slovakia overtook Poland as the EU country with the highest jobless rate at 10.8 percent, according to Eurostat, the European Union's Statistical Office.
The country's Labour, Social Affairs and Family Office reported the registered jobless rate at 8.33 percent, remaining unchanged month-on-month, but down 2.3 percentage points year-on-year.
At the end of March, there were around 22,000 job vacancies in Slovakia, with the demand for employees increasing by 40 percent year-on-year.
While more foreign workers are likely to come here, foreign labour will not be an important part of workforce in Slovakia anytime soon, Jakuš said.
"Unfortunately, Slovakia is not a very attractive place for people from other countries to come to work," he said.
Jakuš said he does not see major changes in filling executive and managerial positions in large companies, but it is becoming more difficult to fill specialist and skilled worker positions.
The critical positions have been the same for the last two years. There is a great demand for information technology workers - such as programmers, analysts and system administrators - mainly due to many new IT projects in Slovakia and many people working abroad, Jakuš said. There is also a shortage of skilled engineers for car manufacturing and electro-technology, he said.
Human resources profess-ionals agree that the lack of flexibility in Slovakia's education system, which often fails to reflect the demands of industry and the job market in general, is behind the shortage of skilled labour.
"We have heard many times in the last few years that the education system and job market must be closely related, but except for a few attempts, we've seen almost no results," Jakuš told The Slovak Spectator. "Our universities have very few contacts with companies and they are preparing potential employees who lack many of the basic skills and knowledge needed for successful employment, and who have no experience.
"I see no easy way to assure that this relationship works better. The best way would be to learn from experience from countries where the education system and job market coexist much better, and implement relevant measures in our system as well."
Ľubica Krchová from Volkswagen Slovakia's Department of Industrial Engineering shared Jakuš's opinion.
She said that there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the education and business sectors working together.
"The question is whether the current situation is a failure of the industry and the weakness of our university system, or an inability to define the needs of the industry on one hand and unwillingness to listen to the needs of industry on the other hand," she told The Slovak Spectator. Schools can hardly produce qualified graduates if they do not listen to the real needs of the industry, she added.
The Slovak Productivity Center (SLCP), based at the University of Žilina, co-operates with companies on research and development to link practice with education.
Its executive director, Milan Hulín, told The Slovak Spectator that cheap labour will no longer be Slovakia's advantage and the country will have to compete on other levels.
He believes that Slovakia has enough capable employees able to adjust to the needs of the labour market, but also the needs of the companies - if they are provided with suitable training.
"Company managers in the future will probably not stress qualifications as much as flexibility, loyalty and discipline; while qualifications matching the company's needs can be provided by the relevant education institutions," Hulín said.
The business sector has been calling on the government to support technical studies, including secondary vocational schools and universities, because the growing automotive industry is creating positions for them.
"Technical studies have not been especially popular with students in the past few years and it is reflected in the deficiency of qualified candidates in today's labour force," Dvořák told The Slovak Spectator.
The government could also support re-qualification programs, which could provide people with proper education for jobs currently available on the market and lower unemployment rates, said Dvořák.
"Slovakia definitely has the resources, we just have to utilise them appropriately; then there will be no need to employ foreigners," he said.
Schools have been using outdated study materials and many times have no physical study aids that students can relate to and learn from by actually using them, said Dvořák. Kia has allied with several schools and has provided them with such learning tools, including cars and engines.
To try to attract students to the profession, Kia provides plant tours for students to show them how production process works in real life. More than 66 schools and 2,600 students have participated in the program, Dvořák said.
Company takes early steps
The largest employer in eastern Slovakia, U. S. Steel Košice, has not yet felt an urgent lack of qualified labour. But the company has already seen the warning signs when it comes to information technology jobs.
U. S. Steel has noticed a drop in the number of students interested in technical schools, company spokesman Ján Bača told The Slovak Spectator. The company, however, is starting early to search for and support its future work force.
"We have started several programmes to increase the attractiveness of vocational school, and technical fields of study," Bača said.
"We have made an agreement with vocational schools and we financially support students who choose specific fields, such as metallurgist operator, machine mechanic, and electrician. If they finish the year with certain grades, they get a monthly financial benefit."
There are more than 200 students involved in this program. According to Bača, there is a fair chance that these students will get employed at the company, because U. S. Steel advertises its job openings to the school.
The company also offers internship programmes for students from the Technical University in Košice. Students participating in the programme have a chance of being offered a job with the company.
The main obstacles to employing the long-term unemployed are the lack of training and the inflexibility of many potential job applicants.
U.S. Steel has been addressing a specific group of young Roma, because a lack of education is often the biggest obstacle to employment in the Roma community, Bača said. In a special employment project, U.S. Steel offered jobs to more than 150 Roma, he added.
The national jobless rate is calculated from the number of job seekers able to take a job immediately. That number was 216,518 at the end of June, a decrease of 48,661 people from June 2006, the SITA newswire reported.
Slovakia's employment rate grew the most in the car vehicle sales and maintenance sector in May, with a growth of 20.5 percent, the Slovak Statistics Bureau reported.
From January to May of this year, the number of people employed in this sector swelled by 19.5 percent year-on-year. In retail sales, the employment rate grew by 7.8 percent, and growth in the construction industry was 6.6 percent year-on-year.
23. Jul 2007 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová