Education is the key

US AMBASSADOR to Slovakia Rodolphe Vallee considers the idea of requiring students to stay in secondary school until the age of 18, instead of the current 15, to be innovative. The change, supported by some Slovak mayors, would help solve both the high unemployment rate among Roma as well as Slovakia's looming lack of qualified labour, Vallee said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. Vallee also shared his thoughts on Slovakia's prospects for entering the visa waiver programme, the need to make education a priority, the country's Roma community and the media.

US Ambassador to Slovakia Rodolphe Vallee
photo: Courtesy US Embassy

US AMBASSADOR to Slovakia Rodolphe Vallee considers the idea of requiring students to stay in secondary school until the age of 18, instead of the current 15, to be innovative. The change, supported by some Slovak mayors, would help solve both the high unemployment rate among Roma as well as Slovakia's looming lack of qualified labour, Vallee said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. Vallee also shared his thoughts on Slovakia's prospects for entering the visa waiver programme, the need to make education a priority, the country's Roma community and the media.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): US President George Bush signed the Improving America's Security Act of 2007 on August 3. What effect will this have on Slovakia?

Rodolphe Vallee (RV): The passage of this act is very good news for Slovakia and for Central Europe. The legislation creates greater flexibility in the system. There tends to be a lot of focus on only one aspect of this news, which is the so-called adjustment of the refusal rate from three to 10 percent. Slovakia has made some great progress, and this year I think we are in the 12 percent range. The country is moving to the right direction.

Still, one thing we have to understand is that the refusal rate is not the sole criterion in the bill. There are a number of specific security agreements that all potential members of the visa waiver programme have to work out with the US government and many of these will take some time. My hope is that as we work to come to an agreement with Slovakia on the security arrangements, we will continue to see improvement in the refusal rate. The continuing economic growth is a good sign since the refusal rate tends to be tied to economic prosperity.

Another criteria in the law looks at the overstay rate, which is a measurement of the number of people who go to the United States and stay longer than their visa allows. We have some work to do on our side to be able to measure this rate. But there is a provision in the law that will allow the secretary of homeland security to establish an acceptable rate. The number has not been established yet. Even a country that is not within the 10-percent visa refusal rate has a chance if its citizens comply substantially with the length of stay granted by the visa when they enter the US.

I have already requested to reconvene our working group with the [Slovak] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior to go through all of the elements in the new law and determine who is going to work on what. There is, for example, a requirement that we have a system for reporting to the Interpol lost or stolen passports. We do not have to wait for Slovakia to go below 10 percent of the visa refusal rate in order to get that system in place.

Ambassador Vallee says keeping children in school longer would help fix both the labour shortage and unemployment.
photo: Courtesy US Embassy

TSS: Will Slovakia's entry to the Schengen zone increase the country's chances of meeting the security requirements for the US visa waiver programme?

RV:Much of what Slovakia is already doing in connection with Schengen will help implement the security elements. There was an effort in the working group on biometric passports and I think some elements of these biometric passports are part of what you are doing in regards to Schengen. Slovakia has shown determination and put its shoulder to the wheel in terms of meeting the Schengen requirements, at least based on the briefings I receive.

TSS: The country's education system has been under strong scrutiny in regards to the debate over tuition fees and the growing lack of qualified labour. What are the prospects for cooperation between Slovak and US education institutions?

RV: We have made an essential part of our mission here the improvement of education cooperation between the two countries. We are extremely proud of our Fulbright Program. Our higher education initiative seeks to extend exchange programmes and create opportunities for US companies to work together with Slovak institutions in terms of private-public partnerships, taking the bright ideas in the minds of students and professors and introducing them to the market place. For example, in Silicon Valley in the US, that kind of relationship between education institutions and the business sector is well established.

The biggest challenge that Slovak students are facing is a financial one. The level of remuneration of the government to a student going to a university in Slovakia is roughly between $1,000 and $2,000 (Sk24,000 and Sk48,000). The level of tuition fees in the United States are somewhere at $20,000 and $50,000 (Sk490,000 and Sk1.2 million). Even if Slovaks could borrow that kind of money, it becomes very difficult to repay. So the biggest problem is not the desire of Slovaks to go to the United States but rather the question how we fund it.

We will try to be more aggressive about working with the European Union within the Atlantis programme, which is a cooperative programme between the US and the EU to foster exchanges. The EU is a big place, but those exchanges might as well be with Slovaks. We will try to accelerate working with EU Commissioner Jan Figeľ and others on the Slovak participation in the Atlantis programme. Also, there is an increasing opportunity for an exchange between universities where a Slovak can pay Slovak tuition and the American pays the American tuition and they simply swap. That really gets us over the challenge for Slovaks. There are agencies that do this.

TSS: In Slovakia, it seems that the business sector and education institutions still face barriers when trying to find ways to connect.

RV: One of the things that Americans can be really proud of is the speed with which they can take bright ideas and introduce them to the market place. This is because we broke down the barriers between academic institutions, research institutions businesses and capital.

I think that what it takes is a rector, a dean or a professor who is willing to devote the energy and the time to make these things happen. You have some great success stories here in Slovakia. For example, ON Semiconductor, a US company, has established a relationship with the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava that goes back eight or nine years when they created within the university a facility called ONMist, where the ON Semiconductor rented the space and then had an arrangement to have the students to run a specific research project. The project resulted in ONMist having its own independent research centre here in Bratislava employing Slovaks who design the chips that are built up in Piešťany.

TSS: The automotive industry has attracted several significant US investors to Slovakia. The media often speculates whether the investors might soon look further east, especially when lured by cheaper labour and more advantageous tax bonuses. Is this concern justified?

RV: I think it is very unlikely for a major US investor who has built up a plant here four years ago, especially not for US Steel, to be making those kinds of decisions. So the questions better asked is "do you think this will have an effect on future investments?"

Over the past couple weeks I have been meeting with Slovak and American companies during my trips. What struck me is just how much of an issue it is now for these companies finding labour. One company that has a labour force at 800 could employ 900 for example. In a sense this is also is good news and what we are saying is: increase the wage levels. This is the sign that the market is working and the economic growth here succeeded spectacularly.

TSS: The lack of qualified labour has been identified as one of the issues that will be causing a lot of headaches for Slovak employers. You have already talked about tighter links between the needs of the business and the education sector. What are the other options?

RV: I have a labour theory with respect to Slovakia. The Roma population in Slovakia is reaching 10 percent with the unemployment level of the community being at 80-90 percent in most cases. So it tells us that a lot of unemployment and the lot of potential work force in Slovakia is the Roma community. When I talk to the Roma and I ask them, "What do you need the most?", of all the challenges that this community is facing, they say, "We want jobs."

When you talk to employers or social workers they make a very strong point that a lot of Roma stopped having schooling at the age of 15. They do not have all the required training to do qualified jobs. And you can just forget about jobs that require university training. The majority of Roma do not really go to school after their 15th year.

I have had a lot of discussions with mayors who had the very innovative idea of extending the required length that students stay in high-school from the current level, which is the age of 15, up to the age of 18. They propose providing students who do not necessarily go to high-school traditional vocational training and other kinds of training. When they leave school at the age of 18, they would be in a much better position to participate in the labour market. At the same time, this would help improve the life of the Roma and enlarge the labour pool in Slovakia. I have had discussions with Roma leaders who seemed positively disposed to this option.

TSS: In addition to the automotive sector, what are other sectors of the economy that still have the potential to attract foreign investments?

RV: The high-tech, value-added and knowledge-based industry takes advantage of a very talented pool of students here who look at opportunities to transform these talents in the higher added-value business sector. You continue having investments here by American companies like ON Semiconductor, Hewlett Packard, Dell and AT&T here.

Slovakia is dependent on one country for all of its gas, nearly all of its crude oil and its nuclear fuel. It is not uncommon in this region to have that kind of vulnerability. The short term solution is to make sure that there are multiple access points to traditional fossil fuels. These are things we work on every day here. However, the long term solution is to look at what kind of energy resources could be made available in the country and I think it represents a tremendous opportunity for the American energy industry here. You have great opportunities for energy efficiency. There are significant alternative energy investments such as biomass, small-scale hydro-electric power and others.

We will be hosting a conference in September bringing American technologies into Slovakia and allowing Slovak businesses see what is available in the sector. I have spent a lot of time visiting biomass facilities and I am convinced that even without government subsidies, there are ways to lessen the dependence on high-priced gas. What is interesting about energy security is that everything we do to rely less on fossil fuels has the benefit of reducing our carbon footprint.

TSS: The United States' plans to build a missile defence system in Europe have evoked a fiery discussion on both the international and national level. PM Robert Fico has said several times that he would never allow a US missile defence system to be built on Slovakia's territory. Do these statements in any way influence Slovak-US relations?

RV: In both our private and public discussions with Slovaks we reiterate the point that this missile defence system is not meant to threaten the Russians. We do not view Russia as an enemy. The system is directed at countries like Iran; the country that threatened to wipe Israel off the face of earth and has threatened the US and Europe.

One of the reactions we receive from the opponents of the defence system is, "What do you worry about? There is no threat yet." The operational date for this missile system is 2012. Just in terms of all the things that need to be done to make it operable, who is to say what the Iranian missile system will be like five years from now?

TSS: The situation of the Slovak media and the question of the quality of the journalism have recently been occupying the front pages of Slovak dailies. PM Robert Fico says that there are coordinated attacks on his government by the media. How do you see the Slovak media environment?

RV: If you sat down and read the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, the reaction would be that the US government is under an assault by the media. The fact that the media write critically about you is part of the territory when you enter politics. And you are never going to like it. Mounting an assault on the media is usually not healthy but an engagement with the media is the best solution. When the media gets the story wrong, use the opportunity to explain that they are wrong. Respected journalists will understand that they have been wrong.

The general advice that I would give any politician in the United States is that the best approach is to handle issues straightforwardly and honestly with the media. There are going to be good journalists and bad journalists, but in the end, if good journalists are treated fairly and you are giving transparent information you will be treated fairly as a politician.

TSS: Local TV Handlová will receive a grant reaching $18,000 from the US embassy to continue a project assisting the city television in Kunduz in Afghanistan. Can you tell us something more about this kind of support?

RV: It is one of those little projects we are doing here. This is the second time that TV Handlová has been in Afghanistan to help to develop a robust independent thoughtful television reporting system in Afghanistan. We are also sending some of our grant money to encourage programming for women in Afghanistan. I think one of the most rewarding things we can do here are these kinds of projects, the kinds that we can do together with our Slovak friends in countries that need assistance.

TSS: How has your stay in Slovakia been so far?

RV:I am having the time of my life.

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