13 Jul 15

A Degree of Hopelessness

Jeton Mehmeti

Blerim Cakolli has both a bachelor's and a master's degree from the Faculty of Law at the University of Pristina. Since he graduated with his advanced degree three years ago, he has been working full-time - not as a lawyer, but as a waiter in a restaurant.

Law graduate Blerim Cakolli in a restaurant central Pristina

"After I finished my studies, I applied for lots of jobs related to my profession, in government ministries, courts and other public institutions, but I was never successful," says Blerim, sitting in another restaurant in the centre of the Kosovo capital.

Blerim, who will soon turn 30, is one of many young Kosovans who have found that earning a university degree is no guarantee of getting a good job in the depressed economy of Europe's newest country.

In Kosovo, the unemployment rate is 35.3% and youth unemployment stands at 61%. Many people have little hope that things will improve any time soon. This was dramatically illustrated in the early months of this year when more than 100,000 people poured out of the country, seeking asylum in the European Union. They had no political grounds for doing so but were simply looking for a life with better economic prospects. Now, every day, EU countries send back Kosovans whose requests to stay have been rejected.

Blerim started working as a waiter to finance his studies. He didn't expect this would become his full-time occupation.

When he asks employers why his job applications have been unsuccessful, the most common reply is that he lacks three years of professional experience. But Blerim believes the real reason is widespread nepotism. "It's become the practice that jobs are advertised in the public sector just as a formality," he says. "The person they want for the job may be already working there."

Blerim's perception is widely shared. According to a poll this year by the United Nations Development Programme, 81 percent of Kosovans believe that family connections, bribes, party allegiance and other factors that have nothing to do with merit are most important when it comes to getting a public sector job. Only about 15 percent think education, professional experience and vocational training play a role.

"I've completed a one-year internship at the Basic Court in Pristina, I've attended training courses on entrepreneurship and I've been part of training courses offered by the public employment agency," Blerim says. The latter, he says, has never contacted him since he did the training - despite being a public employment service meant to help people find jobs.

At the end of 2014 there were 6,840 registered jobseekers with university degrees in Kosovo, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. That is a small proportion of the almost 275,000 people looking for work in Kosovo. But it shows that thousands of highly educated people are unable to find jobs. And the number of registered jobseekers with university degrees is increasing, highlighting a huge mismatch between the supply from universities and demand from the jobs market.

And, of course, the unemployment statistics do not include the many people like Blerim who are in work but doing low-paid, low-skilled jobs instead of pursuing the professions in which they were trained.

Blerim Cakolli and Jeton Mehmeti chat over coffee

Blerim feels complimented when his boss tells him "you don't belong in this job".  Yet until he finds a "proper" job, he simply has to be a waiter to provide for himself and other members of his family. Being a waiter is not an easy job, he tells me, but the hardest part is swallowing the pride a master's degree gives you.

"I studied something else, I dreamt of becoming something else, and in the morning I start working as something else entirely," Blerim says.

"When I finished my master's, I was very happy," he continues. "But soon I got very disappointed. I was happier when I was studying, because hope was part of that."

Yet when you look at Blerim, all you see is a smile and positivity. He has an explanation for this: "Smiling is part of the job. You have to smile and serve your clients, even when you're not in a good mood. A customer is always right even when he is wrong."

That's the kind of can-do attitude employers often say they want. But in Kosovo, even when combined with two prestigious university degrees, it's not enough to get you the job you deserve.


Jeton Mehmeti works as a policy analyst at the GAP Institute, a Kosovo think tank, and teaches at the Department of Journalism at the University of Pristina. He is examining the value of university diplomas in Kosovo's job market for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. 

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