Engaging Employers in Education Reforms in the Western Balkans – How and Why?

By Ivana Aleksic, Senior Education Consultant, Wider Europe, British Council.

This is a short version of the article published in the November issue of the Macedonian monthly ‘Economy and Business’: (p. 50-54); by Ivana Aleksic.

The prolonged global economic crises made countries look for new and innovative approaches to mobilising both firms and individuals in hope of an economic revival – a better response to today’s skills and productivity challenges. In the Western Balkans, key words of education reform today include employability, qualifications frameworks, entrepreneurial learning, workplace training, to mention a few. All of them indicating that education systems need to be looking across the boundaries of their sector. Here, employers can help. By engaging them in education reform, we can increase relevance of education programmes and improve supply of industry-needed skills. In the Western Balkans, additional regional considerations need to be taken into account.

This region is still fighting the legacy of state employment with private sector employers as ‘new kids on the block’. Until early 1990s, most transition economies had a state as a dominant employer, which significantly changed by 2010, according to the World Bank [1]. However, the private sector in the Western Balkans is still weak and suffered additionally as a result of the crisis, which lead to weaker performance of the surviving firms and lots of business closures.

Employers provide a reality check that needs to be accounted for in education reform. Every education law in the Western Balkans is aimed at ensuring that each young person is equipped for real life challenges and is able to successfully transition from school to work. However, this is not always the case. In this part of the world, youth unemployment is extremely high with many barriers to labour market entry for the young [2], which is why education authorities are no longer indifferent to what employers have to say.

Employers can and should affect education policy. It is no longer possible to imagine that qualifications frameworks and national occupations standards can be relevant to economic development without employers’ involvement. Recognising that, the Western Balkan countries all aspire to bringing on board employers organized nationally in sectoral bodies with a strong role in leading development of occupational standards and qualifications. However, this is a slow and demanding process. These employers are eager to engage but sometimes lack the skills themselves.

The countries have made different degrees of progress when it comes to creation of effective mechanisms to engage employers. Some of them managed to establish sectoral commissions that are already involved in education reforms (case of Montenegro). Others have had little or no experience. For instance, Serbia piloted skills councils but could not sustain them. In Macedonia, the law on qualifications framework envisages the establishment of sectoral commissions with employers represented as well although implementation is still lagging. Bosnia and Herzegovina is only at the start of these discussions.

Although the Western Balkan governments have made a decision to set up nation-wide sectoral bodies with functions similar to skills councils, they lack technical knowledge and skills, as well as legal and institutional frameworks for acting on those decisions. Private sector employers in this region need to get acquainted with longer-term benefits of their involvement with education authorities in implementing national qualification frameworks as well as with their role as training providers. By mandating roles and clarifying responsibilities, all parties will have clarity about the process and expected outcomes and could be held accountable for delivery. Those should be the key ingredients of a future social contract between employers and education authorities. This is a matter of urgency for the Western Balkans today.


[1] Arias, O. et alt. (2014), Back to Work: Growing with Jobs in Europe and Central Asia. World Bank.

[2] For more on youth unemployment in the Western Balkan region.