Education, Achievements and Employment: Bishkek

Over the past few months the project I’m working on has advertised three times for a PR specialist – basically someone who could take over my role and do it better (along with a number of other responsibilities to make the position full time).  The requirements are a bit onerous – working competence in several languages, specialized knowledge of a certain sector, sufficient experience and existing contacts, a bit of technical expertise.  To date none of the candidates meet absolutely all of the requirements.  I think we found someone who has some unique experience to offer, but will still require some support on technical aspects of the job.  Finding a person with that range of skills and depth of knowledge is truly quite difficult.  When I first started working on the project I wondered about the merit of my involvement in communications for a project whose outcome is supposed to come from the Kyrgyz people, especially as everything I’m working with needs to be translated.  But now I get it – finding someone to fill a specific position is not an easy task, or the work of a week.

Interestingly enough, this was an issue I also worked with (but didn’t experience directly) on another project for a different NGO last year.  The aim of that project was to refurbish and revamp a series of vo-tech colleges with an end goal of better matching graduates with the job market – that is to say, growing the number of graduates in critical programs, ensuring that students gained sufficient practical knowledge and experience while at school, and aiding them with job placement largely through internships.  Because, the underlying assumption was, many current graduates did not have the skills or experience to take on the jobs most urgently needing to be filled.  There was (is) both a surplus of graduates and a shortage of qualified blue-collar and technical workers.  From our experience running through the rounds of position announcements and interviews this year it would seem that the same is at least somewhat true for white collar/professional positions.  There is a huge labor pool, and yet there don’t seem to be enough qualified professionals, or enough professionals who meet all of the qualifications and have the accompanying attributes of character and enthusiasm.  (Some of the people we interviewed sounded quite impressive on paper, but fell short of expectations in person.)

And yet, the issue one hears most often concerning employment in Kyrgyzstan is that there aren’t very many good jobs and most wages are too low.  Many women don’t work after marriage simply because even a complete sacrifice of time would lend but meager augmentation to the household income.  Average office incomes run about $400-800 a month in Bishkek – that’s enough to cover rent for a two bedroom flat ($300-400 for an older flat; 600+ for something newer), but not much else.    International organizations and NGO’s generally pay about twice the going local rate for similar positions – good money in local terms (considering that the reported country GDP PPP is around $2,400 per person).

So is it that there aren’t enough qualified officials, that people aren’t willing to work for those wages (and either aren’t working, or are leaving the country), or that people are still approaching work with a soviet mentality (get the job done, meet quotas and nothing more) and thus are not flexible or broad enough for multi-function positions in an evolving economy?

It’s a hugely complicated issue – on one hand, wages really aren’t high enough to encourage people to aspire and there often isn’t enough potential for career advancement to rally employees to finesse their professional skills.  A fairly large portion of the population do have university education, but that doesn’t always translate into them having acquired the requisite skills or knowledge for a chosen career.  Apparently more female students are also choosing ‘soft core’ majors (such as those in the humanities), which don’t necessarily prepare graduates for a particular career path. On top of that add lack of resources, aged materials ill-adapted for the modern economy, and the habit of trading bribes for grades/diplomas (at some schools many students don’t even show up for classes), and you have a system that is not adequately preparing the next generation to engage in work or approach their world with an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit.  There is some training available to professionals already employed in the government and international organizations, but sometimes that also seems to take the China-approach (done to be checked off, and not necessarily to have an actual impact). While some universities have banned bribery and do offer practical training for students – the Turkish university, for example, has a complete TV and radio studio with all equipment run by students – there’s then the problem of finding a place to implement that knowledge.  The university TV studio is one of only two in the entire city.

But of course the country does need to train a core of professionals in every field if it wants to see steady development.  A country can’t develop relying on aid money alone, the economy can’t grow (really grow) unless individuals seek to expand knowledge, service and skills.   And while I have come across some dedicated, smart, inquisitive, and innovative individuals – it doesn’t seem to be enough to change the whole system, to set a foundation for real and sustainable growth. There do need to be more incentives to gain skills (higher wages for educated professionals, greater potential for merit-based career advancement), but there also needs to be real educational reform – education not with the goal of handing people a diploma, but with the goal of creating well-equipped, community-conscious, inquisitive and solution-seeking individuals who will be capable of expanding their skills to set the country’s future.

But that – that’s a long way off.

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