Half a million people will be trained in digital skills
Bulgaria is among the European countries with a serious shortage of labor force skills. This assessment reflects the problems with acquiring practical knowledge from vocational and higher education, the lack of widespread digital skills and the low scope of qualification and retraining.
The uptake of dual learning is lagging, the share of people with at least basic digital skills is 29% (at 58% in the EU), the participation of the population in lifelong learning is 2% (at 11% in the EU).
The unemployment rate is falling, and labor shortages in the last six months have returned to relatively high levels after the crash at the start of the pandemic, but unskilled unemployment remains relatively high. Against this background, the main instrument of the state for employment and training, namely the National Employment Action Plan, continues to spend the funds provided for an active policy mainly on the creation of subsidized employment and not on retraining and acquisition of new skills.
The development of digital skills in the coming years is a priority of several programs and strategies such as the National Development Program "Bulgaria 2030", the Lifelong Learning Strategy, the project of the Employment Strategy of Bulgaria for the period 2021 - 2030, the National Program "Digital Bulgaria 2025", the strategy "Digital transformation of Bulgaria for the period 2020-2030" and the future Skills Strategy, which is yet to be developed.
A huge jump in the number of adult training courses can be expected upon implementation of the currently planned initiatives in the National Plan for Recovery and Sustainability. The project "Training for digital skills and building a national online platform for adult education" envisages training 500,000 people over the next five years. It has a total value of BGN 379 million (of which BGN 57 million is national co-financing) and, in addition to the training itself, includes the creation of a platform for digital training, e-learning programs, a tool for evaluating digital skills and for their validation, digital learning clubs. The main groups that will be included in training will be unemployed persons registered in Directorates of Labor Bureau and employed persons who have a very low level or no digital skills and competences. Priority will be given to persons at a disadvantage in the labor market, including persons of Roma origin, persons with a low level of education, older persons, etc.
This ambitious project is likely to be key to increasing the competences of the workforce in Bulgaria and to provide a long-term perspective for the development of human capital.
The problems of the particular project, and the efforts of the state in general to make this transition, will most likely face the usual difficulties, however. More than once, we have witnessed the power of the Bulgarian administration to write plans and strategies - and for digital skills there are already a number of active strategic documents - but also the weaknesses in their implementation. The reasons for this are the lack of strong motivation of both the target groups and the providers of the service (for example, due to financing problems, political instability, reluctance of institutions to recognize specific responsibility, etc.), and on the other hand, the deeper problems with some groups of the workforce who do not want and see no point in participating in the labor market and observing labor discipline. The project envisages the use of labor mediators, e.g. Roma and youth mediators, but the most vulnerable groups (e.g. Roma and the elderly) and those outside the labor force (e.g. the discouraged and the youth) may not be reached, cannot be motivated or lack technical opportunity to participate in the planned trainings. In this regard, it is important to clearly address the problems of individual groups and individuals. A major risk for a long-term and large effect is also the completion of the work after the end of the funding. And at the moment, the administration does not analyze the results of its active policy on the labor market, nor whether those trained under it find work. There is a real danger that the future digital skills project and the established e-learning platform will also be forgotten after the funding of the mechanism ends and a new writing of plans and strategies begins.
Either way, the digitalization of the economy is happening and the workforce, especially the long-term unemployed and vulnerable groups, must be adapted to the new situation. The pandemic and state of emergency have already shown how important technology and digital skills can be in saving jobs and limiting the damage to the economy as a whole and household incomes.
Author: Zornitsa Slavova, Institute for Market Economy
 Based on the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for the population aged 16-74, 2020.
 Based on Eurostat data for the population aged 25-64, 2019.
 According to the monthly data of NSI "Business Observations", the labor shortage in industry was about 30-35% before the pandemic, it decreased to about 15-20% at the beginning of the state of emergency in Bulgaria and in the last half year it was at the level of about 25- 30%.
 According to data from the Employment Agency, the registered unemployed with a working profession or specialists decreased by 34% in November 2021 compared to a year earlier, and those without qualifications - by 22%.