Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Graduate Unemployment Rising in Armenia

Employers looking for solid experience rather than paper qualifications.
By Gayane Asryan
  • Recent graduate Artur Baghdasaryan thinks he might as well set fire to his diploma for all the good it has done him. (Photo: Gayane Asryan)
    Recent graduate Artur Baghdasaryan thinks he might as well set fire to his diploma for all the good it has done him. (Photo: Gayane Asryan)

In Armenia’s fiercely competitive job market, having a good degree is no longer enough. Many graduates say they cannot get a foot in the door because employers are asking for substantial work experience rather than formal qualifications.

Take Artur Baghdasaryan, who got a degree in marketing from the State Economics University in July. Although he has the kind of qualification many employers need, and has had some practical experience as an intern, employers will not look at him.

After completing an internship over several months while still a student, Artur was told he could not be hired because he did not yet have a degree. Now that he has graduated, he gets told that what he lacks is prior experience of work.

He has been to seven different employment agencies so far, and IWPR accompanied him as he continued his job search.

At Chance, a private job agency, head Irina Karapetyan, said Artur’s lack of a track-record would be an obstacle.

“In my experience, I’ve never seen a single case where someone has been taken on with no experience,” she said. “Few companies will agree to do so, and they will pay 30,000 or 40,000 drams [roughly 70 to 100 US dollars a month], thus exploiting the individual for a few months before saying goodbye to them.”

Because of the reputational risks involved in marketing, most employers will not take on inexperienced recruits, partly to avoid the trouble of having to train them.

Two other employment agencies visited by IWPR said they had nothing suitable to offer Artur.

Artur was philosophical about these setbacks, saying, “I won’t lose hope – it will just take longer to find a job. The key thing is that I’ll have to be ready to work unpaid for several months.”

Anahit Parsadanyan, who heads the department for analysing and forecasting the labour market at the state employment agency, said graduates were accounting for an increasingly large proportion of the unemployed.

While the official unemployment rate has fallen by nearly 15 per cent since last year, university graduates now make up 16 per cent of the total, compared with 12 per cent in 2007.

“Employer attitudes towards higher education have changed,” Parsadanyan said. “I can assure you that they don’t pay attention to diplomas now, and often set out requirements that are simply ridiculous, for instance work experience or an excellent command of several languages. How can an accountant have an excellent or fluent knowledge of three foreign languages?”

Tatevik Abrahamyan, manager of HR.am website – one of the largest online recruitment advertising services in Armenia – confirmed that nine out of ten employers seeking to place ads there underlined the importance of at two of more years in previous work, a knowledge of languages, and teamwork skills.

“Only when a candidate has met the specifications does an employer ask what university they graduated from,” Abrahamyan said. “Employers are acutely aware that a degree doesn’t mean someone is any good, so they attach great importance to experience.”

Nor are internships an automatic route into paid work, according to Armine Haroyan, head of the scholarship programme at the Armenian Educational Foundation. All too often participants come away with little to show because the internship has been mismanaged.

“To put it mildly, universities are failing to pay enouth attention to internships,” Haroyan said. “Some students admit that although they fully understand the theoretical bit, they’ve failed to acquire the practical skills that will give them a head start into work after graduation.”

Experts say that the success of private universities in recent years, coupled with more exacting demands from employers, has left too many graduates chasing after the same jobs.

There is still demand for some professionals like doctors, vets, accountants and finance experts – but as Parsadanyan pointed out, these jobs are mainly outside the capital Yerevan and the salaries on offer are low.

Other graduates find that their degrees are simply not in demand.

Anna Yeghiazaryan has a degree in Persian language from Yerevan State University and has spent the last five years trying to find a job where she can use it.

Persian should have been a safe bet, since Iran is a neighbour of Armenia, and trade and other relations are growing. Yeghiazaryan now realises that too many others had the same idea.

“I thought that since our country had friendly relations with Iran, in future there would be more interest in and demand for Persian, but it turns out there are so many experts in the language that they’ve saturated the job market,” she said.

Yeghiazaryan has survived on freelance translation work, but needs a regular job.

“A few months ago, someone from an employment agency rang me up and offered me a job as an office manager. I was really disappointed,” she said. “I love and respect my profession and I’ve dedicated eight of the best years of my life to obtain it, so I am not going to give up. I’d rather go abroad to find work than be forced into working as an office manager here.”

The question is whether, and how, government should intervene to get higher education and employer expectations more into sync.

“I agree that the relationship between education and the labour market isn’t very balanced,” a spokesman for Armenia’s education ministry, Artur Baghdasaryan (no relation of the marketing graduate), said. “We can’t stop applicants going into higher education on the grounds that they might not find jobs in future – that would deny them their right to an education.”

The head of the state employment service, Sona Harutyunyan, says better communications should be established between employers and jobseekers.

“We have set up a new programme within which we are running internships designed specifically for the young unemployed. The three-month practical courses will give them an opportunity to gain relevant skills that correspond to what employers are asking for,” Harutyunyan said. “We’re also holding labour fairs where employers and those looking for work can interact.”

Gayane Asryan is a reporter for eMedia.am.

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