It is quintessential for Slovakia to boost its human capital

How the EU recovery fund can be used to bolster talent in the country.

(Source: SME)

Vladimir Zlacký is the Founder of LookingEast.eu

I have recently argued that advanced, sophisticated services with an international focus might significantly help the future growth of the Slovak economy. With the manufacturing sector’s dynamism petering out, a more multi-prong policy focus would likely bring strong growth benefits.

Activity in fields like IT services, advanced consulting services, and higher-end tourism are examples of such advanced services. Other examples would include international trade companies, commercial fairs organisers, high-end medical services, top marketing or interior design studios, or even specialised services like tennis academies or local showbiz (also popular in Czechia). All these services can have a significant international orientation (perhaps also focusing on China and other eastern markets) and thus tap vast global markets, bringing massive export or quasi-export earnings for the Slovak economy in the future.

Recovery money for talent and education

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What policies would induce the development of such an advanced sophisticated services base? These services derive their value mostly from the human talent augmented by education – hence an urgent need to bolster the human-capital capacity of the country. Utilising the announced massive EU sponsored aid within the Recovery Fund framework would be one way of supporting the proliferation and growth of such services in a foreseeable time horizon.

In a nutshell, aiding formal education and lifelong learning sectors, engineering reverse brain drain to Slovakia, and helping the diffusion of knowledge in the economy would all go a long way in boosting human capital in Slovakia.

Specific policies

Helping the formal education sector at all levels would be one way of supporting the growth and prosperity of such firms in the medium to long-term horizon.

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First, some resources should be channeled to increasing wages in the education sector so that the sector attracts better talent. Other specific policies, such as free laptop computers for all children in primary and secondary schools or technological upgrades of labs in many fields, would go some way towards the formation of technical capabilities of pupils and students. Gratis vouchers of a specific value per year issued for book purchases would prompt children in elementary schools to read more.

Importantly, the availability of scientific articles at low or no direct cost to the researcher would help the readier adaptation of frontier knowledge in basic and applied research.

Hence, some resources from the Recovery Fund could go towards a country-wide subscription to the primary databases of scientific journals. The resources could also be earmarked for more R&D activity via grants subsidized from the Recovery Fund. Efforts to continually redesign and update school curricula at all levels to keep abreast of the best practices internationally should be sine-qua-non.

Lifelong learning needs to be triggered

There are many reasons why lifelong learning can have positive spillover effects on the economy. First, the AI revolution will bring a tremendous amount of innovations and ensuing disruption to the marketplace.

The Slovak economy - like most others – will have to undergo a structural change. Some workers will be let go from their previous occupations, and many will seek retraining programs to start economic activity in a new sector. Second, other workers during their careers will need to specialise further and deepen their skills to keep abreast of the knowledge progress. Lifelong learning provides an opportunity for such additional expert-skills. Third, still some others might have “missed the right career train” when young or at some point. Nevertheless, a well-functioning society that aspires to create prosperity for all should not overly penalise weakness or failure, and give individuals multiple chances to succeed in the workplace during their lifetime.

What are policies that could trigger massive lifelong learning in the economy? Tax incentives such as no VAT on textbooks and learning tools could be one way of supporting learning in general. Individual tax credits for high-quality but oftentimes expensive executive training is another way of incentivising more training by individuals. Additionally, a lot of education is happening within the corporate sector. The super-tax deductibility of training costs with a higher than 1.0x coefficient – thus increasing the tax shield, reducing the effective cost of the corporate-level training – would incentivise more training activity in the corporate world.

Engineering reverse brain drain

For decades, Slovakia has suffered from a massive brain drain. Some of the most talented people have left the country for better career opportunities. The Slovak economy would tremendously benefit from the return of at least some of these workers – they could be the future entrepreneurs, high-level managers, or experts in sophisticated services firms or elsewhere.

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Given that the pool of local talent is limited and probably represents a bottleneck to further development, even pecuniary ways of incentivising the return of Slovak professionals from abroad (such as via tax breaks) could be considered for implementation.

The diffusion of international frontier knowledge in many fields of the economy – so that the frontier knowledge pool can be tapped into by private firms in Slovakia – is quintessential for internationally competitive domestic firms. Expert scientific and other advanced conferences with foreign experts in Slovakia could help such diffusion. Subsidizing the costs of hosting such expert conferences could be one direct way of promoting the spread of frontier knowledge in the Slovak economy. The exchange of academics at all levels internationally, perhaps also subsidized from the funds made available by the EU, could be another way of bringing academics closer to the knowledge frontier. Slovak firms could thus tap into a further augmented talent pool and strengthen their competitiveness.

While valuable in its own right, all this could help the country develop an internationally competitive services sector and return the Slovak economy onto the path of fast growth and convergence in the medium-term.

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