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Even Greater Scramble for Good Workers

Given the labour force shortages and lack of suitable personnel in certain sectors, there are ample reasons to expand the common labour market beyond the borders of the Open Balkan initiative to encompass all Western Balkan economies

The start of March saw the launch of the Open Balkan common labour market, which enables citizens of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia to apply, gain employment, live and work in the other two countries under the same conditions as citizens of those countries, while it enables both local and foreign companies operating in the area to find the workers they lack on the markets of all three members of the initiative.

Thanks to the technical interlinking of national eGovernment portals, the procedure to obtain an Open Balkan identification number from one’s home country and apply for free access to the labour market and obtain a permit of another country has been simplified massively, such that it is now simpler than employing foreigners in any of the three countries, without the need to obtain work and residence permits or collect piles of paper or electronic evidence… In just a few digital steps.

Despite the competent eGovernment administrations of the three countries having not yet released official data on the number of applicants by the time this edition went to print, other than to note that interest is high, we have unofficially discovered that almost 2,500 citizens of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia registered with their eGovernment in the first seven days, receiving their Open Balkan ID as an entry ticket to use electronic services within the Open Balkan, initially to apply for employment in one of the other countries.

As such, all job seekers and workers now have the opportunity to find work on a significantly larger market of more than 11 million people, as opposed to being restricted to their own small national labour markets of 6.6 million (Serbia), 2.8 million (Albania) or 1.8 million (North Macedonia). According to national statistics that, in truth, aren’t fully harmonised in terms of methodologically, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have a combined working population of 5.4-5.5 million, with approximately 4.9 million employed and 550,000 unemployed.

Many thousands of new jobs will be created in Serbia until 2027, but also during the EXPO, both for companies and people from the Open Balkan countries, but also from across the Western Balkan region

Flash analysis of the individual markets indicates that the three countries have largely overlapping needs. For example, all Open Balkan member countries, just like the entire region, but also the wider European Union, lack construction workers, lorry and bus drivers and IT experts, all of whom will feature on lists of the most sought-after occupations needed by all sectors for a long time to come. Albania is currently most in need of workers in the tourism and hospitality sectors, construction and textiles, as well as IT professionals, while North Macedonia needs workers for jobs in the mechanical and electrical engineering, food and chemical industries, as well tourism and hospitality. The situation is similar in Serbia. One recent survey saw Serbian companies involved in the dual education system express the greatest need for personnel in construction, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, but also in the service sectors – retail and hospitality, while as many as 35 per cent of respondent companies are interested in educational profiles in the fields of mechanical engineering and metalworking.

It is almost certain that Serbia will have the greatest influence on shaping supply and demand on the common labour market in the coming years, not only because it is the Open Balkan’s largest economy and currently has a slightly higher average salary than Albania and North Macedonia, but also because of its large investment cycle that includes the construction of the World EXPO complex.

It remains to be seen whether the Open Balkan common labour market will change the image of the national markets of the initiative’s member countries, and if so to what extent and how, but also how much it will alleviate labour shortage problems, the cost of labour and the expectations of workers, who will be more attractive and in which segments.

Despite failing to bring together all six Western Balkan economies, and for non-economic reasons, the fact remains that – following the significant easing of mutual trade and the formation of a common labour market – the Open Balkan initiative has made regional cooperation possible and brought it to life, providing concrete, tangible benefits to both citizens and the economy, as well as future investors.

New possibilities aren’t only available for the unemployed, but also for the employed – particularly young people who are more mobile – to find more rewarding work in other Open Balkan economies that will provide them with greater opportunities than their current job intellectually, materially and in terms of career advancement. This enables them to remain here in the region instead of emigrating in search of better opportunities.

Greater intra-regional mobility of workers cannot in and of itself halt migration to developed countries, where in all honesty opportunities are greater and conditions better. But it is – together with further economic growth and improved standards, education that meets the needs of the new digital and green economy, and simplified procedures for hiring foreigners from other countries – one of the ways to alleviate the problem of the outflow of labour.

Borders can’t and shouldn’t be closed and nobody has the right to deny anyone the opportunity to go where they see better opportunities for higher earnings and personal and professional advancement. However, alarming data from last year’s Balkan Barometer survey shows that as many as 70.6% of Western Balkan respondents aged 18 to 25 are seriously considering living and working abroad. When asked what the governments of their countries should devote more attention to, just under half of those surveyed listed job opportunities and almost 40 per cent ranked education as their top priority.

From an analyst’s perspective, positive developments on the regional labour market (with an employment rate that’s never been higher and a record low unemployment rate) aren’t as encouraging when viewed from the point of view of companies. The problem of labour shortages and a lack of suitable personnel in certain sectors exists and threatens businesses across the entire Western Balkans, in all economies – as much in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo as in Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. However, this problem also afflicts the wider region, including neighbouring EU member states.

This is reason enough to expand the common labour market beyond the borders of the Open Balkan countries to encompass all Western Balkan economies.

YOUTH

Connecting three smaller labour markets in a single larger one not only creates new possibilities for the unemployed, but also for the employed – particularly young people who are more mobile.

TEST

Due to the upcoming tourism and agriculture seasons, but also increased construction industry activity during the summer months, seasonal workers are likely to be the first to test the common market.

LIMITATION

Greater intra-regional mobility of workers cannot in and of itself halt migration to developed countries, where in all honesty opportunities are greater and conditions better.

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