There are many indicators to a country’s economic health. GDP is the most obvious, but jobless/in work figures, inflation, budget deficits and the status given by ratings agencies are all important too. The good news for Hungary is that all these criteria appear to be heading in the right direction. You could quibble about the level of growth, especially on the back of disappointing Q4 figures, as outlined in our Macroscope piece on the page opposite, but all analysts seem agreed this year, and in particular next year, will see much stronger figures.
But there is one area of concern, and I suspect this will become a recurring theme whenever chambers of commerce and industry meet throughout the year, with each other or government officials; the availability of skilled labor.
That Hungary faces serious challenges in this regard is beyond doubt. It was referenced by Ekkehard Philipp of Mercedes-Benz Manufacturing Hungary in accepting the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency’s Local Partnership Award at the BBJ’s Expat CEO of the Year Gala on February 10. It is also discussed at some length in an excellent column from Jason Weedon, director for strategic partnership at the Central European University’s Development Office, on page 17.
In the interests of balance, it is important to stress that companies continue to come to Hungary, or reinvest here, in part because of its highly skilled and valued workforce. There has not, as far as I know, been an investment lost based of fears of a shortage (if I am wrong, I’d love to hear the details). But for all that, the problem is real and growing and multi-layered.
It touches on education, both in terms of how much is spent on it (again, as Weedon points out, Hungary’s international comparative PISA scores for education are moving in the wrong direction) and the quality of students turned out, or more specifically their suitability for work.
It is also impacted by the traditionally low mobility of Hungarians: those without work and in areas of low job availability, most typically in the east of the country, have often been unwilling to move or commute longer distances to where there are jobs.
Efforts are being made on both fronts. Many multinationals, but most especially those based in Germany, are investing heavily in the type of dual training education program that has proved so successful back home. HIPA, as a point of contact for foreign investors with the government, has been working hard to get subsidies in place to help with mobility, and to draw investors further east.
Then there are other issues to consider. The need to at least offer young mothers the opportunities to return to work if they wish to, for example. Or making greater use of the experience tied up in the older population, who tend to be overrepresented among the jobless. Then there is the balancing act of allowing young talents to experience work abroad, but encouraging them to come back and put the lessons learned to use here, rather than being lost as part of the brain drain. And, as ever, solving the seemingly intractable problem of Roma integration so that members of Hungary largest minority, too, can enjoy the benefits of a successful society and play a full part in it.
None of this is easy, indeed, some of it is fiendishly difficult to solve, but if Hungary is to make the most of the potential it so clearly has, real life workable answers must be found.