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‘Everyone wants to become a lawyer’

the crippling skills challenge facing the Cypriot economy

Cyprus is an ambitious country that aspires to send as many of its sons and daughters as possible to university and into professional careers. However, this intense focus on academic achievement may not always be the right answer for the local jobs market.

In the 2020/21 academic year, more than 54,000 students attended higher education institutions in Cyprus, with 78% of these students studying at university.

Degree programmes in Business Administration and Law (28%), Education (24%), and Health Sciences (15%) were the most popular fields of study. As such, the nation has many professionally qualified citizens in areas like business, law, and education. But many will struggle to find employment following graduation in an increasingly competitive job market.

Indeed, Eurostat figures published in 2020 showed that only 17% of upper secondary pupils in Cyprus were enrolled in vocational education, the lowest rate in the EU, resulting in a shortage of skills to match the demand of key jobs for the local economy.    

New horizons

Nicos Tourlakis understands the value of vocational education and lifelong learning. The 43-year-old electrician moved to Cyprus from Greece, where he served his apprenticeship as an electrician.

After relocating to Cyprus with his wife and child, he found work with the renewable energy company Bioland Energy as a "simple electrician.”

“I started out maintaining and fixing small parks,” says Tourlakis. “Since then, I’ve progressed in my career to work on home installations and then larger industrial projects.”

Tourlakis explains that his successful career path can largely be attributed to his company’s  commitment to upskilling its employees through vocational education and training.

Flexible learning opportunities enabled Tourlakis to attend college in the evenings, balancing his study with his work and family commitments.

Tourlakis is now a supervisor overseeing a team of 10 people, and is keen to develop their skills with similar vocational education and training opportunities.

The electrician is excited to work in the fast-moving renewable energy sector, in a job that challenges him and is vital to supplying Cyprus with clean, green energy to secure the country's economic and environmental future.

Despite the passion of hardworking and committed workers like Tourlakis, the future isn’t always so clearly marked out for local workers.

Skills shortage

In the past, in common with many other European nations, Cyprus filled many jobs with migrant workers. However, a global skills shortage has forced Cyprus to look to its own population to fill these often essential jobs. This problem was compounded by migrant labour leaving Cyprus during the Covid-19 pandemic and upwards of 15% not returning.

Highlighting the problem, the Cyprus Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB) estimated that there were more than 9,000 vacant positions in the construction industry towards the end of last year. In addition, the nursing and IT sectors also reported many thousands of unfilled vacancies.

Andrew Sophocli, who runs a small company specialising in carpentry projects in Larnaca, believes the lack of skilled workers may also be a generational problem, with the younger generation unwilling to take on manual jobs. Sophocli, who is in his 50s, fears that many vocational skills will die out, as those working in these fields will retire and young people will not take over. He added things were worse since the pandemic, with even fewer tradesmen available on the market.

The Director of Secondary Technical and Vocational Education and Training at Cyprus Ministry of Education, Sport and Youth Elias Margadjis, has a unique view of the imbalance this has created in the local workforce.

"Everyone wants to go to university and become a lawyer, an accountant, or a teacher," says Margadjis. "But we don't have welders, we don't have chefs, and we don't have electricians. So vocational education is essential for Cyprus's labour market, our companies, and our economy."

Margadjis explains that while the significant focus remains on the professions, many university graduates struggle to find jobs in their field of expertise.

"It's good to say 'I am a teacher'," says Margadjis. "But if you study to be a teacher and you can’t find a job, you are not a teacher. You are unemployed."

In August 2022, there were 14,961 registered unemployed in Cyprus. Despite this, the local population is still not applying for these vocational roles.

Prioritising vocational education and training

Margadjis explains that vocational education needs to be prioritised and highlighted as an attractive route to employability.

"The first cycle of secondary education is very important," says Margadjis. "To pass this knowledge on to our children, we have to find the time and highlight the various professions available to them and how those professions have changed in recent years."

Margadjis explains how careers like plumbing, carpentry, and car maintenance have changed dramatically with the advent of new technologies.

“The car you drive today is not the same as the one you used to own,” says Margadjis. “The modern car mechanic must possess the skills and knowledge to keep pace with technology.”

According to Margadjis, Cyprus needs to focus on several areas of vocational education and training to raise the profile of such career opportunities.

Priorities include developing closer ties between Secondary Technical and Vocational Education and Industry. This will result in students on vocational programmes having access to the best modern technical equipment, educational material, and training opportunities. Stakeholders from across VET and Industry are also constantly reviewing opportunities in emerging industries, including renewable energy and digital technology, to ensure today’s students have the skills for tomorrow’s innovative sectors.

There is also considerable investment in improving programmes offered at the five Evening Schools of Technical and Vocational Education in Nicosia, Limassol, Larnaca, Paphos and free area of the Famagusta district to ensure adult learners have access to the opportunities lifelong learning creates.

By improving the perception of vocational education and training and enhancing access to programmes, Margadjis hopes to tackle the critical skills shortage in Cyprus and create lifelong and rewarding careers for the local population.

Margadjis’s ambition to improve the image of VET is supported by the Education Minister, Prodromos Prodromou. Speaking about the construction of new training facilities in Limassol, Prodromou recently told journalists how the new facilities would improve access to VET: “We are talking about post-secondary, employment-oriented, short duration education,” said Prodromou. “I see very positive progress. Not only will this kind of training contribute to the development of the country, but it will also improve prospects for many young people.”

Prodromou reiterated that while many Cypriots had degrees, there were gaps in the labour market that only VET could fill.

“Our country needs it, there are needs in the economy and the labour market,” the Minister said.

The European Union supports Member States in making their VET systems fit for the green transition. In the construction sector alone, for example, the European Green Deal is expected to create up to 487,000 new jobs in the EU by 2030. Out of these, almost 70% will be created for skilled manual and non-manual workers, who typically have a vocational education and training background. Member States can make use of EU funds to invest in reskilling and upskilling of the workforce, in addition to initial education and training.

For example, EU support to further develop and improve VET in Cyprus will continue under the ESF+ co-funded project ‘Upgrading of Technical and Vocational Education’ of the Ministry of Education. The ESF+ will also support the introduction of Individual Learning Accounts and the ALMA initiative in Cyprus. In addition, the Just Transition Fund will invest EUR 13 million in a Green Technical School. Meanwhile, in the context of the Cypriot Recovery and Resilience Plan, upskilling and reskilling for the green and digital transitions will be strengthened through a EUR 15 million investment. The target for 2030 is for 60% of all adults in the EU to participate in training every year, while for Cyprus the target is 61%.

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