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Blue-Collar Workers Earn More Than University Graduates

On 10 January the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection proudly announced that Belarus has reached a historical minimum level of unemployment: 0,5 per cent. The figure looks impressive even compared to the recently improved unemployment indicators in Russia...


On 10 January the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection proudly announced that Belarus has reached a historical minimum level of unemployment: 0,5 per cent. The figure looks impressive even compared to the recently improved unemployment indicators in Russia (5,4 percent) or Kazakhstan (5,3 percent).

Belarusian media started to explain why the figures of the Belarusian government are incorrect. But  HeadHunter Belarus – project of RABOTA.TUT.BY – diminished attractiveness of Belarusian labour market otherwise. According to their research, blue-collar workers in Belarus are in much greater demand than university graduates. They also established that Belarusians earn considerably less than citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

For example, Belarusian accountants averagely earn 2.7 times less than their Russian colleagues. Surprisingly the salary of Belarusian accountants is often even lower than that of Minsk subway cleaners. Despite this parents spend fortunes for covering their children's tuition fees, while the children themselves spend at least five years on the way to a profession which will hardly ensure their prosperity. 

Cheap Graduates

Not only accountants' monthly salaries look rather depressive. An average lawyer earns $382 per month, a marketing specialist – $405, while doctors have to work for 10-11 hours to earn their $350.

The trouble comes not only from the generally low salaries in Belarus. It is largely about the low demand for university graduates. More than 77 per cent of Belarusian vacancies are still for blue-collar workers.

Interestingly, from this perspective market economy really works.  The most hated by many Belarusian graduates advertisement which they see in the subway offers cleaners $394 per month – far more than many recent university graduates get. 

Higher Education's Disappointments 

During the last seven years, the number of students enrolled in vocational training training colleges has decreased by almost 35%. The number of university students is constantly rising. The sad reality is coming to the minds of young people gradually after enrolment at university. As the joke goes would you say to graduates of philological faculty? – One Big Mac and Cola, please”. The older Belarusian students become, the less funny they find the jokes about their future career at McDonalds.

There are exceptions of course. For example, the prospects of IT-specialists look rather promising. Impressive popularity of programming faculties and courses accompanies growing demand for programmers, as well as increase in their salaries. Regrettably, not everyone in Belarus has the the right mind-set to do IT work. 

Still the algorithm “kindergarten-school-university” governs the minds of young Belarusians and their parents. Universities promise a beaming life success, while entering a vocational school equals to joining the army of untouchable.

The status of a school graduate who decided to have a year gap in education is even worse. If a young man does not enter a university or another educational establishment after school he will have to follow an even more unwanted scenario: a two-year military service.

This does not leave much rule for thinking to a 17 or 18 year old person who may still hesitate about career choices. As a result, this question arises sharply in five years when it is already a time to work. When university graduates suddenly realise that they can get the profession of their dream at a vocational training school only. 

Unemployment Algorithm

Despite a large number of university graduates and their unfavourable employment situation, according to the Belarusian Ministry of Labour and Social Protection unemployment rate in Belarus manages to be just 0.5 per cent. For Belarus it is not sudden and unexpected – last year the official unemployment rate was merely 0.6 per cent. 

A good deal of bright graduates leave for Russia, less often – for Europe and North America. Qualified blue-collar workers, especially young men, also find this opportunity rather attractive. In any case the main reason is the salary. If a Belarusian builder in Mahileu region earns about $400, just across the border in Smolensk region it would be $1,200 per month.  

Foreign investors remain cautious about Belarus and the state-run economy cannot produce enough jobs with decent salaries. The economy badly needs modernisation which is difficult to achieve without significant foreign investments and a serious commitment to reforms. 

Those who stay in Belarus have two options. First, they may quit their recently acquired prestigious profession  and go to something more simple to earn better money. Second, they may decide to keep to their prosperous image and hopes for success. From time to time, ambitious hopes come true. The popularity of the first option is striking. Hearing from your shop assistant that he is an economist, or from a masseur that she is an engineer is unlikely to surprise a Belarusian. It has already become a part of reality. 
But even this system can hardly ensure 95.5 per cent employment of population. Belarusian statistics’ trick of counting only those who officially register as unemployed helps.
Low Competition for Employment

Even if the unemployment was indeed so low, it is not a reason to be excited. The above-mentioned research of HeadHunter Belarus suggests that competition for employment is considerably less than in Russia, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan. It makes less than three people for a vacancy and in average each vacancy got only 14 replies from candidates.

The figures can look positive and imply that all Belarusians have already found their dream jobs. However, they lead to other conclusions as well. The main of them is that Belarusian labour market is only slightly familiar with competition for employment. That means employees are not engaged at constant improvement of their skills. They will get a job anyway. At the same, those who are ready to improve their skills and qualifications find leaving, for example, for Russia much more attractive.

Why do people agree to be paid so little? One explanation is that they follow a famous Soviet employees’ wisdom: “We pretend working and you pretend paying.” Perhaps, it is high time to burn the proverb together with the load of harmful stereotypes. Otherwise, the country may end in the same unfortunate way as its predecessor, the Soviet Union. 

Darya Firsava
Darya Firsava
Darya Firsava is a Minsk-based lawyer working on her PhD and leading a number of educational projects in Belarus.
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