Western Balkans: Partnerships for skills development

The Western Balkans were the focus of the ETF Live webinar on Monday, looking into partnerships in education and training, and how the green and digital transition is being supported. 

The speakers were Amira Ramhorst, Regional Cooperation Council, ESAP, Team Leader; Bernhard Fabianek, Senior Expert, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission; and Ulrike Damyanovic, Senior Human Capital Development Expert, ETF.

While Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union (EU), the six nations of the Western Balkans - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia– are at various stages of seeking EU membership. In October 2021, the EU and Western Balkans leaders launched the Innovation Agenda 2021-2027, as part of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans.

Fabianek was involved in the European Commission’s development of the agenda, which is aimed at not only getting these Western Balkan nations into the EU, but also to be more competitive and improve employment prospects. “We have common challenges – climate changes, forest fires in the summer; it is in our interest to solve these problems as we are all in the same boat,” said Fabianek.

In November 2020, at the Sofia Summit, the leaders of the Western Balkans launched the Common Regional Market initiative, which is structured around four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, capital and people) while also covering aspects of digital, investment, innovation and industry policy.

Ramhorst said the initiative would allow for easier movement of people, capital, goods and services.

“It is a pre-EU single market in the Western Balkans. It makes their human capital more sustainable and dynamic,” she said. 

One area of cooperation that went into practice last year is already paying dividends – zero mobile phone roaming costs throughout the bloc. “You can now travel across all economies without having to switch SIM cards. We are hoping to do the same across all strata,” said Ramhorst.

The common regional market has brought a further advantage in showing it is not six small economies, but a market of 18 million people.

“An investor is more likely to invest if it can come to a region of 18 million,” said Ramhorst.

Estimates point to additional growth of 6.7% for the region.  

Bolstering the region’s economies will help prevent the flight of human capital. “We don’t want to help brain drain, but to make sure there’s a positive future in the region. Cooperation is better than sucking out (the talent) like a vampire. It is about improving human development and creating the conditions to make it worthwhile to stay,” said Fabianek. 

A significant number of Western Balkan youth do want to leave for greener pastures, according to a  Regional Cooperation Council barometer. “Over 60% said they would leave the Balkans if they had the opportunity. This is really something we should work on,” said Ramhorst.

The number of Western Balkan youth that are not in education or employed is 24% compared to 11% in the EU, while youth unemployment is 35%, roughly double that of the EU’s 16.8%. 

To address this challenge within the EU, the Youth Guarantee was inked in July 2021, while the leaders of the Western Balkans have also committed to it. “This means that all young people under 30 will receive a good job offer, an apprenticeship, or traineeship within four months of graduating school or being unemployed. It is a big commitment, but is one of 10 flagships priorities of the EU masterplan,” said Ramhorst. Northern Macedonia is piloting the youth guarantee.

It is a fitting development with the European Commission designating 2022 the European Year of Youth, which aims to build a better future that is greener, more inclusive and digital.

“When we could travel, we could see that start-ups are always done by young people, so we need to ensure there is good quality education and top-notch services as these entrepreneurs have to compete globally. It is up to us to create an environment, like rapid prototyping facilities, and for resources to be made available for infrastructure, universities, and cloud computing. We have a mandate to review how education and employment is progressing to join the EU,” said Fabianek.

Damyanovic emphasised the importance of partnerships to address the joint challenges that the EU and the Western Balkans region is facing. “In these COVID-19 times, it is even more important. We need to reinforce partnerships, and find new ones,” she said. 

For the ETF, this includes implementing the EC’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, 2021-2027. Resilience has become more prominent within the EU since the pandemic, with the Skills Agenda for sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience launched in July 2020. 

While the Western  Balkans have their own particular challenges, Damyanovic said were three challenges in common with the EU countries. “There is a persistent skills mismatch, and the difficulty in transitioning from school to work, which increases unemployment. And we have high volatility in skills demand for the green and digitalisation transition. The third common challenge is the quality of teaching and learning so that young people and adults can get a good education,” she said. 

The ETF is supporting vocational education and training reforms in the Western Balkans within the context of the Osnabruck Declaration and European Council regulation.

The RCC is focusing on human capital development and partnerships, particularly with the private sector. Through a coalition it is working to improve digital skills in the Western Balkans – while 80% of citizens are internet users, the region legs behind the EU average in basic and advanced digital skills, and the number of ICT specialists in the workforce, according to the Western Balkan Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019. 

The RCC is also working on a regional network for women and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

“The private sector is critical for us in the digital skills coalition. But we couldn’t have traced all the indicators if it wasn’t for the excellent partnership with ETF,” said  Ramhorst.

To see the full conversation:

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