Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia Faces a New ‘Scissors’ Crisis, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 3 –Russia today faces a new “scissors” crisis because its economy needs more highly skilled laborers while its educational system is producing a flood of specialists with “pseudo-higher” degrees, a situation that must be addressed not only to overcome the current crisis but also to modernize the country over the longer term, a leading Russian sociologist says.
In an article in today’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development and one of the most provocative writers on social problems in Russia today argues that it is “premature” to speak about the stabilization of that country’s labor market (
That is because, he says, “the difficulties the Russian labor market is experiencing today were programmed into it before the beginning of the [economic] crisis” and must be overcome not only to ensure that Russia will be able to get out of its current difficulties but be able to enter into a period of “stable economic growth.”
Gontmakher argues that two trends have come together to create this situation. On the one hand, he says, “the system of higher education has begun to produce an unprecedented number of the most varied mass specialists (managers, economists, and jurists) [sometimes] to the detriment of the quality of their preparation.”
There are three reasons for that, the Moscow scholar suggests: a desire of institutions to get as much money as possible from the state or from students, increasing opportunities for students to go to school if they have money, and “a sharp weakening of demands for quality in the educational process.”
“Under these conditions,” he says, “only the greatest failures of the graduates of schools do not become university students.” And that has led to a kind of “negative selection,” one in which very people now enter the labor market without a higher degree, even if they do not have the skills that such a degree would have implied earlier.
And on the other hand, the labor market in Russia now does not require such large number of graduates. Instead, “the ‘real sector’ (including construction and agriculture0 with rare exceptions up to now remains a relic of the industrial epoch with a large fraction of physically monotonous work which does not require any qualification.”
The causes of this, Gontmakher says, are “well-known:” Russia has not sought to modernize its economy in recent years in large measure because it was able to rely on earnings from the export of gas, oil, and other raw materials rather than on the sale of industrial or post-industrial products.
These trends, the widely-respected social observer argues, have now come together in “a unique ‘scissors,’ when the primitive labor market requires a large number of people with worker specializations, in general of low qualification, and the system of education produces specialists with in part pseudo-higher education.”
That has led to a situation in which there are “millions of unfilled vacancies” for skilled and unskilled workers and there are many “diploma-ed specialists who are forced to agree to any job except for that of a worker,” something most have been able to do until recently because of the explosion of service and government positions.
But because the worker slots must be filled, Gontmakher says, Russia has seen the influx of migrant workers from the former Soviet republics, an influx that has not only created social tensions but allowed many Russians to assume that they could avoid filling the worker slots themselves.
The economic crisis has shown that is not the case at least if Russians hope to have a modern economy in the future. But making the transition to one in which the educational system will produce what the economy needs will not be easy even if the commodity prices rise and the immediate pressure on the government eases.
In this transition period and even beyond, Gontmakher concludes, Russia will need “certain number of migrant workers” because, as the experience of even the advanced economies of the West show, “without them, it is difficult to see how the economy will function” even if the Russian system begins to modernize itself.
But there is another aspect to this problem of a lack of fit between the educational system and the economy that Gontmakher does not explore in this article but that may prove even more fateful for Russia. If the educational system there continues to produce over-credentialed but under-trained people, that pattern alone could produce an explosion.
If the Russian economy and state cannot provide such people with the kind of positions and income they believe they have every right to expect, at least some of them, the experience of many other countries suggest, are likely to become a breeding ground for radical, even revolutionary movements which promise to bring reality into line with their expectations.

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