Young Slovaks' thirst and aptitude for information technology has opened up a divide between generations.
photo: Jozef Gutten
Velšic, a research associate at the Bratislava think tank Institute for Public Affairs, surveyed 1,805 Slovak adults last March, discovering that almost two-thirds of the population was willing to acquire new IT knowledge, and that about half of his respondents had experience with basic skills such as using a computer or a mobile telephone (see chart, this page).
"These numbers are very positive, especially compared to data on the political and economic knowledge our citizens have," said Velšic. "Many Slovaks have basic experience with computers and mobiles, even though a computer still costs three months' average wage, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the IT skills gap between urban and rural dwellers was not as great as I had expected. Given that IT growth didn't begin here until 1989, I think we've done pretty well in a single decade.
"But the key to further growth will be education, and whether or not the government takes systematic measures to spread IT skills," Velšic continued. "At the moment, I think other problems are being solved at the expense of this."
Good people leaving?
The survey results paint a far brighter picture of Slovakia's IT environment than was available even three years ago, and belie the existence of an enormous 'IT gap' between this country and more developed economies. But on the other side of the coin, the youth-led surge in Slovak IT knowledge threatens to open up a social and economic gulf between those who have IT skills and those who don't. And while local IT interest has created both demand and new job openings for Slovak IT experts, these young professionals continue to be drawn to countries like Germany and Austria as the global shortage of IT professionals continues.
Human resources agency Jenewein estimates that by the end of this year, there will be 4,000 job vacancies in the Slovak IT sector for experts such as programmers, database analysts and Internet specialists. But given that 250,000 similar vacancies will exist at the end of the year across Europe, and 300,000 in the US, it seems likely that IT-savvy Slovaks will continue to look for work abroad rather than at home.
"It's basically a question of money," said Jenewein managing partner Martin Novotný, noting that IT experts make about four times as much in Europe (4 to 6,000 euros a month) as they do in Slovakia (30 to 50,000 Slovak crowns a month). "As long as other countries have so many positions to offer, Slovak IT experts, especially young ones, are going to look for work abroad."
Dag Ole Storrosten, managing director of the Internet-based communication services provider Nextra, agreed that the shortage of IT professionals was becoming an issue in Slovakia, but explained the problem as one of more than just computer skills. "We have had problems finding enough good people, yes, but this has also to do with barriers [IT experts face] such as language, culture and the professional skills needed to work in an organisation," he said.
Velšic's survey found that IT skills tended to vary among segments of the population according to the age, address, education and even political conviction of the respondent.
While only 20% of all Slovak citizens showed a 'high' level of IT skills, the survey said, this figure rose to 32% among people between the ages of 18 and 34, to 40% for the inhabitants of Slovakia's two largest cities, Bratislava and Košice, and to 58% for people with university education. The most IT-literate citizens also tend to be fluent in another language, to have visited a western country, and to advocate free-market views, integration into European structures and greater tolerance for minorities. People who voted for ruling coalition parties such as the SDKÚ and the SOP exhibited the strongest IT skills, while those who supported the opposition HZDS and the Communist Party showed the lowest IT competence.
If the trend towards increased IT learning continued, Velšic theorised, a large gap could open up between the IT 'haves' and 'have-nots' - which, given the sociological dimensions of IT skills in Slovakia, could deepen existing gulfs between old and young, educated and ignorant, urban and rural dweller, and even government or opposition voter.
"It's the role of the government and the schools to make sure that such a cleavage doesn't occur," said Velšic, adding he was far from satisfied with the role played by either so far. "If you take [Justice Minister Ján] Čarnogurský's recent comments on homosexuals [see article, page 1] as an example, you can see that the orientation of the government is not entirely forward-looking. If someone says they are interested in the future, they have to look after IT."
Other IT professionals agreed the government could be doing more to open up the IT market, particularly in removing legislative and bureaucratic barriers to e-commerce.
"I think this [IT] gap is already here to some extent, and involves English just as much as computer skills," said Storrosten. "I'm not so afraid for the young people as I am for the more mature citizens. Compared to other more developed countries, where the populations are more homogeneous, Slovakia has a wider gap between the best and worst [IT-trained segments of the population]."
But given the response of Slovaks to new technology such as WAP (allowing mobile users to access the Internet) and Internet banking, Storrosten said that "Slovakia has jumped ahead in some areas, particularly in the past several years, and now has a much brighter picture than its more conservative neighbours in some parts of Austria or Germany. The difference between Slovakia and more developed markets is narrowing.
"This could really take off if the government simplified flows and the bureaucracy for e-commerce, for instance its insistence on paper invoices."
The government says it has already begun to act, particularly in removing the main barriers to e-commerce and in training school children to use the Internet.
The Economy Ministry, for example, has produced a draft law on electronic signatures which is to go before the cabinet's legislative council by September 30 this year. The law would allow people to sign for services and goods over the Internet using a personal code registered with a central office; until now, 'electronic signatures' have not been recognised in Slovakia, and indeed were only approved by the European Parliament on May 5, 2000.
The ministry is also preparing amendments to the Accounting Law and the Commercial Code which would give electronic documents legal status; so far, only paper documents are considered to be legally valid, meaning that firms have to keep paper as well as electronic records of their accounting and other activities. The amendments are expected to be ready in the spring of 2001.
The Education Ministry, furthermore, has thrown its weight behind Project Infovek, a plan to get all of Slovakia's elementary and secondary schools hooked up to the Internet by 2005.
"I don't entirely agree that the government is not doing anything to boost IT skills," said Ladislav Matuška, chief relationship manager of Core 4, an IT software and consulting firm which has been advising the Economy Ministry on its draft laws. "Just look at Project Infovek. Young kids are now using the Internet like their parents used refrigerators. The problem is that there is no one ministry or government official responsible for IT. In the next government we should at least have a deputy prime minister for IT."
Have you ever performed the following acts at least once?
|Have you ever performed the following acts at least once?||Yes||No|
|Have you ever written a resume in connection with some job or other?||8.3%||1.6%|
|Have you ever bought a drink from a vending machine?||80%||20%|
|Have you ever programmed channels on a new TV?||67%||33%|
|Have you ever used a calling card to call from a public telephone||66%||34%|
|Have you ever made a call on a mobile phone?||61%||39%|
|Have you ever taken money out of a bank machine?||59%||41%|
|Have you ever looked for information through a teletext service?||58%||42%|
|Have you ever written anything on a computer?||47%||53%|
|Have you ever put your car through an automatic carwash?||27%||72%|
|Have you ever bought or sold anything through the RM bond market?||25%||74%|
|Have you ever bought anything from a store using a bank card?||20%||80%|
|Have you ever left baggage at an airport?||20%||80%|
|Have you ever looked for information through the internet?||17%||83%|
|Have you ever sent anyone an email?||15%||85%|
Source: Institute for Public Affairs (IVO)
Imagine that you are in a situation where you have to use information or communications technology that you have not encountered before. How would you react?
|I would learn to use it||65%|
|I don't think I would ever be in such a situation||26%|
|I wouldn't be capable of learning new technology||4%|
|I would not learn, because I am not willing to adapt to new technology||2%|
|I don't know||3%|
Source: Institute for Public Affairs (IVO)
28. Aug 2000 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson