Worries that Slovakia may become a cheap source of unskilled labour for high-tech western firms has led to the launch of an ambitious programme to equip future workers with computer-age skills.
Project Infovek, as the initiative is known, has set itself the goal of educating and preparing forthcoming generations for the Information Age by delivering Internet access to every school in Slovakia within 10 years - approximately the time the group predicts Slovakia will become a full member of the EU. "Full-scale internetisation," an Infovek press release reads, can be achieved if the project gains state support, foreign investment and grants from the EU's PHARE programme.
Peter Sýkora, deputy director of the Centre for European Studies at Bratislava's Comenius University and co-founder of Project Infovek, said that the project was an attempt to bridge the gap between the stagnating skills of Slovak labourers and the accelerating demands of a high-tech job market.
"What will unqualified work forces do [in the future EU]?" he asked. "The experience of using the Internet as a learning device is exactly what such work forces require. Project Infovek will prepare a new generation for a united Europe."
"The goal of the project is to train generations in IT technologies," said Infovek's other co-founder, Tibor Papp of Columbia University's Political Science department. "By 2002, there will be a shortage in Europe of half a million qualified workers trained in IT technologies. In 2005, this number will increase to 1.2 million. We think that these jobs could be performed by high school graduates who have been properly trained."
"But the time to start is now," Papp added. "If the project is not realised, the possible advantages will vanish. If we don't do it now, it will be too late and we will miss out on the opportunity of creating a highly employable Slovak workforce."
Few doubt that Infovek will improve the country's workers. Martina Lubyová, a labour analyst with the Economic University in Bratislava, said that "Slovak university students are equally equipped in terms of Internet knowledge to their western counterparts. But once you get outside Bratislava, or once we start talking about pre-university education, then certainly the Internet is not as common."
Plan of action
According to the project's creators, Infovek will be carried out in two phases. Sykora said that the first phase has already begun.
"Right now, we are holding talks which should be finished by the end of the summer," Sýkora said. "These talks involve strategy, a summary of the plan, calculation of the budget and so on. This is the first phase."
The second phase of the project is to take place over the next six years. By 2002 or 2003, Infovek anticipates having connected 300 to 500 predominantly secondary schools to the Internet.
But to reach its final goal of providing Internet access to every school in every city, town and village in Slovakia, Papp explained, Project Infovek needs multiple sources of funding.
"We will need help in financing the project," Sýkora said. "For such a large project, the state must be involved. We anticipate that one third of the money will come from the state budget and the rest will have to come from international sources. We have already applied for a 3.6 billion ECU grant from PHARE and many companies [including Compaq, IBM, Seimens, Oracle, Slovak Telecom, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Philips, Apple, SUN Microsystems and Cisco Systems] have also promised to help."
Pavol Bojňanský, product and services manager at state-run telecom giant Slovenské Telekomunikácie (ST), told The Slovak Spectator that his company would be "heavily involved in Project Infovek." But Bojňanský poured cold water on Project Infovek's expectations that ST would connect schools to the Internet free of charge.
"This is still a business," Bojňanský said. "We will help out but we want something in return, and that is to be the major supplier of lines and Internet connections for Project Infovek and to be recognised as such."
Bojňansky added that providing a free Internet connection would cost ST so much that it would hurt the firm's efforts to obtain a strategic foreign partner by the summer of 1999.
Sýkora and Papp, for their part, remained optimistic. "The project will not only create a high-paid work force," Papp said, "it will also take care of our unemployment problem."
Slovakia's unemployment rate in January was 16.33%.
"We believe the project is realistic, although we understand that it will be a challenge," Sýkora said. "Our society must understand that this is a major priority. Right now, Slovakia must deal with everyday problems, but we cannot forget about the future. And Project Infovek is the first positive vision of the future for Slovakia."