Monday, February 27, 2012

Workin' for a Livin’

One of the most common complaints I hear when speaking to Armenians is that there are no jobs here.  This leads to numerous problems, ranging from the basic worry about the ability to feed one’s family to the impact it has on discouraging hope for the future (why study when there are no jobs anyway?).  

Among other issues facing society here (corruption, economic inequality, gender inequality), the high rate of emigration is one of the largest and one that the government has expressed concern about since this is one of few countries with a shrinking population.  While there is permanent emigration for a variety of reasons other than job opportunities, there is also a lot of “temporary” emigration for people seeking work. In addition to the general lack of credibility in government statistics, one specific reason for the disparity in census figures (officially 3.4 million people live in Armenia; some estimates put the figure as low as 2.5 million) is that migrant workers are usually included in the population while they are out of the country working.  It doesn’t matter if the person is gone for a part of the year or has been gone for decades – he (and they are overwhelmingly male) may still be counted.

Pretty much every family I have met has a father, son or brother (or more than one) working in Russia.  They normally send part of their wages back to support the families and these “remittances” are included in the official statistics of Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure that normally would only include the value of what is produced inside a country.  For the first ten months of 2011, remittances accounted for 13% of Armenia’s GDP, illustrating to what extent breadwinner’s are living abroad (see article). The proportion of GDP represented by remittances, by the way, includes only those cleared through the central bank.  Some people mail the money directly to their families (leading to thriving currency exchange businesses all over the country) so that figure is likely substantially understated.

In illustration of the social impact of the "temporary" emigration, there is a village where 98% of the men are away in Russia, forcing women to take on traditionally male functions. As I wrote previously, I expect this phenomenon to fuel a societal change in gender roles, but that can't happen if there aren't jobs to fill with women or men.  But I digress.

As with census figures, unemployment figures are highly suspect.  The government recently announced that unemployment fell in 2011 compared to 2010 (6.4% compared to 7.0%).  While those are rates that the US would welcome these days, the rates have a couple of footnotes.  Unlike the International Labor Organization, Armenia only includes those registered at the State Unemployment Agency as opposed to polling households.  And anyone who has cultivatable land (most people in villages) is not considered unemployed (I guess one could make a case for subsistence farming being a profession…..).  Following the more standard international practices, the unemployment rate can be estimated between 19 and 27%.  In Gyumri, the official unemployment rate is about 25% but I have heard estimates as high as 70%.

Some people who do find work are significantly overqualified for the jobs they take but they have no choice (I have heard of doctors working as drivers for expatriates).  One young man I know has a university degree from a technical university.  He looked for a job for more than a year and eventually gave up on finding one in his field of specialty.  He started looking for anything where he could qualify but even then it was difficult. He applied to work in a store where the only advertised qualification was computer knowledge, which he has.  When he did not get the job he asked why and was told that they are really looking for a woman to hire – since they need someone to make coffee for everyone else.  He eventually got a job working at a dye vat in a tee shirt factory.  As with most everything else, the factory closed at the end of December for the New Year holiday, but due to lack of orders it did not reopen until late February.

Employment is the main reason I hear for nostalgia for Soviet times.  “Everyone had a job!” I am told repeatedly.  I picture people as happy as the ones in this video.  Somehow I doubt that is an accurate picture, but economic hardship can play tricks on one’s memory.

But these sentiments are sometimes inconsistent with what I see and hear.  There was a job fair in Gyumri a few months ago where about 40 companies had booths to showcase their companies and to talk about jobs that they have available.  I was curious to go, with images in my mind of job fairs in the US with thousands of people lined up to get in. While I was at this one, however, the attendees were far outnumbered by those presenting.  A fellow volunteer asked an unemployed man he knows about whether he had gone to the fair and was told “no”.  It seems that he didn’t believe there would be anything there that he would be good for so he didn't think it was worthwhile.

In contrast, at my last job in New York I had a position to fill in 2009 – deep into the economic crisis.  I received dozens of resumes (and phone calls even though my number was not advertised) from people who did not have the basic requirements advertised for the job but who were hoping for at least a chance for a job.  The fact that there was a decent;y-paying job (even at a very troubled company) set off a minor frenzy.

The Gyumri job fair made me realize that some people treat a job search like they would online dating – if it doesn’t meet all of my requirements, I won’t even look at it.  Similarly, as I walk around, I see signs posted in the windows of shops and cafes advertising jobs that are available.  But (and, to be fair, the same exists in the US) some people don’t want jobs that are “beneath” them. 

In discussing this phenomenon with others, a fellow volunteer pointed out that, in Armenia, there is no shame in unemployment because it is so prevalent.  And while many in the US are fearful of losing their homes if there is no salary coming in, most people here own their homes outright so the personal economics are completely different.  

As a result of this, the programs we try to run here related to job skills have mixed success.  The discouragement factor I mention above is one thing to contend with while I heard of a donor organization discouraging job skill training programs because they could contribute to permanent emigration and “brain drain”.

And the Soviet mindset remains as a challenge.  In my recent  Business English class that I teach, we spoke about the need for society to plan for the types of jobs that will be needed in the future by making sure that enough people are qualified for them when they are needed.  I asked the class to suggest areas that Armenia should focus on given current trends.  The only answer I got is that the government needs to make sure that people have places to work.  

But then I read coverage of the presidential campaigning in the US.  And the answers seem eerily similar.....