Six years ago I returned to Latvia to found a creative learning company called Leika, after living and studying in Great Britain for five years. There was of course nothing unusual about my going abroad. Ever since Latvia joined the EU in 2004 young people have been leaving the country in their tens of thousands for destinations throughout Europe. Mostly, they have been moving to the UK and Ireland, to work, to study, to learn English or, in some cases, to get married and start families.
That was before 2008-2009. After the financial crisis struck, thousands more people moved to Western Europe simply to survive.
Ryanair must have made a fortune from transporting the Latvian workforce to wherever it was welcomed. Whether you spoke English or not, whether you had a profession or not, there was at least a chance of getting a job “over there”.
Professional dealings with Lithuania and Estonia have taught me that they too have been lured by opportunities, for example by the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics who offered chances that induced many in the Baltic states to pack their bags. Estonia seems to me to have suffered less than Latvia or Lithuania. In the latter’s case, the fact that Lithuanian communities in Britain are more organised and therefore resistant to inducements from home may be a factor.
We all have the same problem: how to bring people back?
Latvian Government officials tell us we are over the crisis now, supporting the point with a blizzard of statistics. We are even about to join the Eurozone, a momentous event for
But the problem we are left with as a result of the crisis is one of empty houses. It is worse in the smaller towns, but the capital Riga is affected as well. Official numbers confirm around 150,000 people have left the country now to seek better lives. Most of them have now been abroad for more than five years. Think of what this absence means in terms
of numbers of kids, schools, taxpayers, and pensions.
The Latvian Government, led by the Ministry of Economics, has now published an elaborate and detailed set of principles and programmes that, according to the plan, is intended to bring 2,400 people back by 2017. This would be a start, but it would hardly be a stampede.
I have played my part in this remigration drama. While I lived in the UK I was looking for ways to return home. Since returning in my early 20s, I have been involved in hiring people for a lot of different projects (engineers, HR managers, creative professionals) always with the intention of bringing one more person back to where they once belonged.
My opinion of the Government’s “action plan” is that it is too theoretical.
It gives the impression that its creators may have talked to people, who are looking to come back (the minister of economics Daniels Pavluts even went on a special tour of migrant destination countries) but I suspect that these officials have not had the direct experience of persuading a potential employee to return - or have themselves been in the position of someone thinking of returning and bringing their family with them.
In my mind remigration efforts should primarily be a dialogue between employers and potential employees. This will keep the focus on the real inducements. People will come back if there is work for the main breadwinner, if it were easier to find good schools, and if they are confident of good local medical support.
Government can facilitate things by reducing current market obstacles, not by creating additional rules for both sides of the dialogue.
Yes, returnees might need help with Russian language required by most Latvian employers, and will need accessible information about available positions. But mostly, people need to know that the pay is adequate (it would help to include pay levels in job ads) and that they will receive some additional benefits.
I believe that right now we desperately need European-experienced multilingual professionals, and frankly we might as well buy them in. If better incentives for both employees and employers were to be introduced, this, rather than elaborate government repatriation programmes, might speed up the process of return.
Every day I hear from friends and business partners that they are looking for colleagues with international experience to join their team. Unfortunately, most of them end up hiring locally, as they can't afford to invest the time and money on searching abroad.
As an example, I know one home maintenance start-up in Riga that is looking to hire a young professional in the service department. I also know there are young Latvians who have been working in a UK food processing factory for the past five years, sharing a house with eight other young guys from the Baltics, and looking for a comeback plan.
First of all our task is to match them up. Secondly, we must help them relocate. A good idea might be to offer a so-called relocation package: a deal for apartment lease, financial help to set up an apartment and a bank account. For an employer it could be a tax discount for, say, a year if they hire someone who is relocating. You do the maths!
From what we can gather from the Lithuanian press their Government is more proactive than Latvia’s in bringing young professionals back, for example through the Talent Lithuania conference in April. But even if Lithuania is a bit ahead of its neighbours, the results are nothing to boast about. A lot of active work and economic development has to be done before we bring those Baltic neighbourhoods back. As a patriotic and proud Latvian I am ready to do my bit to help, at least by setting an example. I had a contract for a great job in the UK, but I chose to build my career, start my family and bring up my kids here, at home.
Julia Belkina is head of marketing and communications for the construction, production and property development holding company LNK Group in Riga and founder of the training and development network Leika.