At just 3.8% (compared with 7.3% in the EU-27), Poland currently has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the European Union. However, in common with many other European countries, there is also a considerable skills shortage across many industries.
A recent survey conducted by ManpowerGroup suggests that 75% of employers report difficulties filling positions across a wide range of occupations. Industries facing a particular shortage include the manufacturing sector, the automobile trade and repair industry, and construction.
The IT industry is another area where the skills shortage is particularly acute. Polish IT firms currently face a shortfall of 50,000 IT specialists, a figure expected to rise to more than 100,000 over the next decade. The growing problem isn't due to Poland not investing in its own talent. Quite the contrary: Polish IT workers are a highly valued commodity and are increasingly targeted by foreign employers. It's estimated that nearly half of all Polish IT workers have been approached by firms outside the country with offers of employment in the last 12 months.
Poland has long relied on importing foreign labour to fill jobs. However, in recent years, global crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw many foreign workers return home, and the war in Ukraine, have significantly impacted the Polish job market.
More than 160,000 Ukrainian refugees have found employment in Poland. Much of this work is in low-paid and unskilled sectors. However, the conflict has also seen many skilled workers returning to Ukraine to contribute to the nation's defence.
According to Liliana Budkowska, Director of External and Inter-sectoral Programmes at the Foundation for the Development of The Education System (FRSE), more effort is needed to integrate Ukrainian refugees into the Polish jobs market.
Liliana says the FRSE is implementing upskilling pathways in Poland as part of the project “A Chance – New Opportunities for Adults”.
"This project focuses on improving opportunities for unemployed or inactive adults, people from disadvantaged areas like small rural towns and the post-industrial regions, adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.”
The target groups were offered flexible opportunities to improve their literacy, numeracy, digital and social competences. They also received support to progress towards higher Polish Qualifications Framework levels.
The scope of the FRSE workload has increased dramatically with the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Liliana explains that because the Polish and Ukrainian languages are similar, many Ukrainians understand Polish but may struggle with reading and writing.
"It's not easy for people to admit that they have a problem with literacy and numeracy," says Liliana. "But without these skills, they may never reach their true potential."
Liliana says Poland is now home to some 700,000 Ukrainian children.
"Some 200,000 of these children are attending Polish schools, with the remaining 500,000 studying online with Ukrainian institutions," says Liliana. "While their future is uncertain, it is essential to be prepared for all eventualities. This preparation includes ensuring they are ready for employment opportunities in the local economy."
Creating opportunities across Polish society
Despite the country’s low unemployment levels, sections of the Polish population may struggle to find gainful employment and are at risk of long-term inactivity. These disadvantaged groups include people with physical and intellectual disabilities and individuals from deprived and abusive situations. Poland is using part of the European Social Fund (EUR 13.2 billion allocated to Poland for the 2014-2020 period) to reduce the obstacles they face and help them find jobs.
"Despite such high demand in the labour market, only a limited number of open positions are advertised at labour offices," Liliana said. "This makes it difficult for disadvantaged people to access opportunities. This is a void that projects like Browar Spółdzielczy hope to fill."
Browar Spółdzielczy (Cooperative Brewery) is a Polish business built on a passion for beer and riding the growing wave of popularity for craft ales. However, Browar Spółdzielczy isn't your typical "hipster" microbrewery. As well as quenching its customers' thirst with its wide range of IPAs, stouts, pilsners and wheat beers, the brewery also creates opportunities for workers with intellectual disability who have struggled to find opportunities elsewhere.
Browar Spółdzielczy is the brainchild of Agnieszka Dejna, the president of the Spółdzielnia Socjalna DALBA (DALBA Social Cooperative), which owns the brewery.
"Browar Spółdzielczy originated from the passion for beer, the sea, and the need for change," says Agnieszka. "We brew our beer in a traditional manner, in a small brewery in Puck, Poland. It's not just a job. It's a passion. Most of the employees of the cooperative are people who had no chance on the open labour market because of their disability."
Upskilling the workforce and providing essential life skills
As well as mastering traditional brewing skills, the cooperative's employees also learn essential life skills that help them to develop socially and professionally.
"Our employees develop skills that support basic and key competencies," says Agnieszka. "These skills support greater independence and help them access educational services."
Alongside acquiring and improving the numeracy, literacy, and organisational skills required for successful integration in the workplace and wider society, workers are encouraged to develop their social skills, further enriching their lives.
“Brewing by nature is a highly cooperative task,” says Agnieszka.
“Throughout the brewing process, our employees are building relationships and discovering friendships that will last a lifetime. For our employees, many of whom will have previously experienced isolation and loneliness, you cannot underestimate the importance of this opportunity.”
One of the many activities employees are encouraged to participate in are diving lessons.
"The water creates ideal conditions for all sorts of physical activities, therapy and the rehabilitation of people with disabilities," says Agnieszka. "They learn how to control their breathing, their bodies, maintain balance and adapt mentally."
According to Agnieszka, this all contributes to a great working environment and even better beer, which is sold at the brewery's franchised Puby Spółdzielcze (Cooperative Pubs) in the cities of Gdańsk, Łódź and Toruń. Just like the brewery, the Puby Spółdzielcze pubs are social enterprises.
"The pubs in Łódź and Toruń have been launched as part of the first social franchising opportunity in Poland," says Agnieszka.
Alongside the pub sales, beer lovers can also find Browar Spółdzielczy's products on Auchan supermarket shelves across Poland.
While Agnieszka is incredibly proud of the story behind the brewery’s success, she is also conscious that a good story will only take it so far.
“We receive a lot of goodwill and support due to our commitment to our employees,” says Agnieszka. “But if we want to progress and protect the future of the brewery and our employees, we have to be committed to brewing the best quality beer.”
To safeguard its future, Browar Spółdzielczy has already sent employees on study trips to breweries in England and Denmark, and has worked with international brewers on new beer collaborations.
"We believe that everybody can work if they find the right place for them," says Agnieszka. "In our brewery and our pubs, we create jobs that are accessible for people with disabilities and mental illness. And at the same time, we are simply serving you a good beer."