Can Europe Make It?

Combatting youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina's youth unemployment crisis threatens to undermine national educational reforms, opportunities for innovation, and economic prosperity by creating a significant 'brain drain' of Generation Y workers. 

Nedim Hadrovic
26 May 2014
A group of Bosnia youth sit in an office during a labour presentation

Winding Road to Work: Bosnia and Herzegovina's Youth. Flickr / United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CISA recent Guardian article outlines that ‘if you were to line up every unemployed young person in Britain, they would stretch from London to Edinburgh’. That’s just around four hundred miles. The distance between Bosanski Brod, Bosnia’s northernmost city, to Trebinje, its southernmost settlement of significance, is almost three hundred miles. To put things into a comparative context, one could easily form a human cross horizontally and vertically, twice, across the entire Bosnian territory with the number of unemployed young Bosnians.

This article analyzes this now urgent problem within Bosnia and Herzegovina and the most difficult obsatcles faced by the country’s youth when looking to build their future careers, if at all possible, within its borders. The World Bank’s official statistics point out that 32% of people aged 15 and up had jobs two years ago (in 2012). To put things into further perspective, that figure (a figure that represents effectively the entire workforce of the country) equals the population of Cologne, Germany. Recent statistics from the Agency of Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding the unemployed segment of that particular demographic point out that around 7% has a university education or higher.

The nascent and newly termed Generation Y hasn’t yet taken a significant foothold in Bosnia and Herzegovina – the preceding Generation X hasn’t even completed what sociologists term a takeover. What is, however, most evidently unfortunate, considering the wider societal circumstances at hand, is that the incipient generation in question has, within Bosnia, adopted most, if not all, the global trends of technological advancement within modern society – smartphones, luxury cars, designer clothes in line with the latest western trends and more. Much of this, according to a professor of sociology at the University of Sarajevo, has to do with Bosnia’s location within Europe and its generally confusing socio-economic status within the continent, which contribute to a readier grasp of worldwide globalization, largely in spite of the obvious financial constraints of this particular group of citizens.

One critical effect of socio-cultural globalization, referred to as the ‘brain drain’, has its own effect on the local young population. It has caused a sort of loop-holed persepctive whereby employers (particularly foreign investors/companies) are at a logistical loss as they do not have an effectively viable population of qualified individuals. For the most part, people have exited for places as far west as the West Coast of the US to Malaysia (the latter particularly popular in recent years due to the two countries’ positive bilateral cooperation following the war, mostly based on religious allegiance). ‘People have lost patience’, a young political science student tells me. ‘There is nothing for us here, not until things change politically’. The issue of the political elite and an almost Machiavellian and seemingly eternal stranglehold on any semblance of a brighter future in the country is the most common lament.

Where will Bosnia's youth look for work

I ask several students where they see themselves building their own futures. ‘Dubai’, a future engineer tells me. Another three humanities students say Germany. ‘Or maybe even Scandinavia’. For most of these young people, the initial stage of their tertiary education is a jumping off point for a masters degree and career specializations elsewhere. Kapur and McHale in Give Us Your Best and Brightest state that there is growing concern that such outflows help trap countries in poverty. I cannot help but feel that such a sentiment is true for my country, which according to World Bank data has been the fifth poorest country by nominal GDP in Europe since 2009.

Then there is the distinct lack of a significant employment platform or any surefire guarantee that you, as a graduate of your particular discipline, will find work in your particular discipline. Transparency International points out that the public sector remains the country’s major source of employment, whose integrity is marred by the manipulation and exploitation exercised by the various political parties to fill vacant positions with their supporters and [family] members, with of course much heed paid to ethnic affiliation.

But to circumvent this in advance is key, and what the Austrian youth employment model has done, and is continually doing, has shown to be encouraging for local economies everywhere. One of the main elements to Austria’s steady tackling of [youth] unemployment, according to Johannes Kopf, is the country’s so-called ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ for young graduates – internships for the common layman. Austria, where the average real GDP growth was 1.64% (well above the Eurozone average of 1%), reveals to us the very symbiotic relationship between youth employment and immediate engagement and a dynamic, prosperous economy – the country largely owes this relatively enviable economic stature within the EU to the apprenticeship guarantee, each position for which the state pays more than 10,000 Euro.

Internships, paid or otherwise, haven’t gained even a foothold in Bosnia, and it is the Bosnian employer’s distinct lack of understanding of what this means for young people and, more importantly, for them, that leaves them at a loss, according to Erol Mujanović, a youth employment expert. I have personally experienced local employers’ lack of understanding of internships, the most pronounced of which was at a prominent media house in the country. With no contract or anything official about the engagement, there was no incentive provided from the get-go. I was utilized as menial labour (mainly expending secretarial work and delivering the proverbial coffee). Furthermore, my employer did not fulfill promises of paying me and refused to provide a letter of engagement, the latter of which is indispensible in any young person’s quest for a career of his or her choice.

The UK’s Graduate Talent Pool, which is another excellent example of connecting businesses to graduate skills (their official adage), points out to prospective employers that ‘internships are a low-risk way to attract new talent and skills into your business’. Further benefits that they outline are new skills, low-cost staffing, assessment of candidate suitability for future long-term employment and CSR, while on the other hand providing graduates with real world experience, soft skills, valuable references and, perhaps most importantly, networking.

The latter, in our modern, twenty first century understanding of the term, is practically unheard of in the Bosnian working environment. Almost all of the aforementioned graduate benefits are sadly inapplicable to any functioning new graduate-employer relationship in Bosnia, partly because, according to economics student Almir (20), ‘the employer, if he recruits you, gets you on no contract or any formal engagement so he doesn’t have to pay taxes on you’, and also because years of economic stagnation has spawned a kind of kill or be killed philosophy in the labour market, where there is practically no workplace solidarity.

Some signs of a long-awaited awakening, on the grassroots level

Erol Mujanović, who I talked to for this study and who was a former manager in the country's largest youth employment retention programme, continuously notices two groups of people: approximately 15% of the total youth workforce -- an almost negligible figure -- are the ones that genuinely work at and try out for the jobs they are qualified for and have employers competing and virtually fighting to hire them.

His Youth Employment Retention Program, the largest of its kind in the country, directly resulted in 4,000 young people being offered and gaining initial, invaluable work experience. Initiatives like Startup Weekend Sarajevo, a local offshoot of the global Startup Weekend brand, have similarly been involving young people in workshops and brief traineeships, if only to act as a prelude to what the global workplace now looks like. Talking to key members of the project, they point out that it isn't just the youth, as a general target group – it's also women, and it is with these projects that they hope to inspire women to develop an entrepreneurial spirit that will ‘allow them to take things into their own hands’. One of the members of the organizing team tells me that oftentimes young Bosnians ‘come in with all these great, meaty ideas’ but are unaware of the risks that go along with getting a startup going.

But the rickety educational system of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Mujanović, lags behind the labour market so far that it isn’t able to provide it with the skills that it so desperately needs. To delve deeper into the current state of mind amongst juniors and seniors in Bosnian colleges, I conducted a small-scale quantitative study at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, statistically the country’s most popular faculty by enrollment and general interest, asking where they see themselves in the future. Of the sixty students I polled on how applicable they see the knowledge they gained at said faculty in a multicultural, modern and globalized landscape, only 7% answered that it isn’t and that a complete reformation of the educational system was needed, 3% answered that it is extremely applicable and an overwhelming 90% answered that they’d want minor changes to the system and that the knowledge they gained is ‘relative’ within a global environment.

But an overwhelming majority of the political science students I polled answered that they do not see themselves working in Bosnia in ten years. One student circled the answer so hard a little piece of the paper fell out. If our very own Generation Y want themselves to be even termed a generation at all, it needs to look at the bigger picture of economic successes around them, in Europe, and even beyond.

As perhaps an ever-present symptom of a post-socialist society, people here today expect jobs and benefits to be served to them on a platter, if they keep their heads down. Erol Mujanović meanwhile concludes that the vast majority of the potential youth workforce of Bosnia and Herzegovina ‘spend their time criticizing and complaining that nothing can be done, and that all job advertisements have in advance been arranged for the families of the people on top’.

If a country’s youth is its future, then our students must surely realize that whatever successes await them abroad will fail to make their own country a more dynamic economy, a better place to live in. For if we do not ‘globalize’ our youth’s general way of thinking, verse them in innovative educational philosophies and methods of employment and, most importantly, allow them to see that it is upon them that the actionable call to reform government rests, we are surely doomed to a fundamental brain drain – one so massive, it will leave this country without a future of innovation and economic prosperity.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData