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Long-term Investment Must Back up Short-term Fixes

And so, somewhat reluctantly, we return to the subject of the labor crisis, because it seems that everyone has been talking about in the past couple of weeks.

Off the record, government officials have long acknowledged the problem. They would not talk about it publicly, perhaps for fear of giving it negative energy; if the government spoke about it, it became a reality. But various industry groups have raised the concern so many times, in so many different forums, that it has become impossible for the government not to address it. We have seen a shift in emphasis at recent conferences: The problem is now acknowledged, but in the context of what the government is doing to fix the problem. In other words, it is being given the best possible interpretation. 

And while we have often criticized the government, for poorly thought through laws that have needed amending the moment they were passed, to laws that are unwanted and unhelpful (Sunday trading), to laws that are passed too quickly and with little consultation (of which the Lex CEU is only the most recent example), it seems only fair that we acknowledge it is doing what it can on this issue.

Mobility grants and incentives are being made available to try and encourage the unemployed to move to where the jobs are. Whatever you think of the way the workfare programs are managed, they do at least get people who have been out of the active labor force used to the idea of regular work hours again (it remains to be seen how effective over the medium-term the scheme will be at converting the inactive into useful workers, but at least something is being tried). For all that there is still too much rhetoric from socially conservative politicians about a mother’s place being at home (that should always be a choice, not a compulsion), incentives are being offered to help mothers return to the workforce, even if only part time; it should be noted here that much has been done by multinationals to promote this idea, but the number of Hungarian awards honoring family-centric work places should also be welcomed and acknowledged. There is even money being made available to retrain, or help bring older citizens and even the retired back to work. Again, this has to be an individual choice, but there is so much valuable experience of how the world really operates out there going to waste because someone in their 50s is overlooked for a position based on their age alone.

The government gets it, but Hungarian SMEs do not always. As reported inside our Special Report on Human Resources, there seems a reluctance to invest in training (or retraining), perhaps based on the fear workers will take that knowledge elsewhere. But as some of the experts we have spoken with argue, it has now got to the stage where SMEs cannot afford not to make that investment. So many new roles are emerging as technologies change, that retraining is inevitable for all of us. After all, I started out 30 years ago in a profession that still used typewriters and paper (and carbon copies), with pages drawn up by hand. It is a world away from computers and electronic full page makeup. Some jobs have disappeared, new ones have been created.

But these are all short-term fixes. Longer-term investment has to be made in education, and it has to start at primary school level; Hungary has been slipping back on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparisons, a worldwide study by the OECD. The most recent data, from 2015, shows that in science, maths and reading proficiency, Hungary’s 15-year-olds are below the OECD average, and those figures have been getting worse since 2006. For all sorts of reasons, but not least in the interests of producing a well-skilled workforce, that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.