PRISTINA, Kosovo-When Glenn Noble looks at his makeshift business office, in his crowded garage, he sees something more. Among the computer chairs, circuit boards and half-built projects, he sees a growing company that could create jobs. He sees a way to give young technology-minded Kosovars a future.
He is worried that many talented, young Kosovars will leave the country if there are not enough technology jobs. If they stay, he is worried they will be stuck working as waiters and at car washes, when one of them could be the next Steve Jobs.
“What a shame if we have, right in the heart of Europe, the youngest population, and it all goes to waste,” he said.
Like Noble, government officials want to reduce the 45 percent unemployment rate by creating high tech jobs. The technology sector, however, is mostly made up of young companies that employ fewer than 20 people.
More technology jobs could be an employment solution for young graduates, said University of Business and Technology President Edmond Hajrizi, because those types of jobs don’t require a well developed infrastructure. A developing country can have a growing tech industry.
“We’re optimistic, taking into consideration the young people, the human potential,” Hajrizi said.
Noble came to Kosovo from the United States after working as an engineer at a microcontroller company. He and his wife chose to move to Kosovo in 2003. They had decided, while their two kids were still young, they wanted to do something international to help people.
From the beginning, he and his wife tried to work teaching a useful employment skill. First, they worked as English teachers, but public schools were filling that role.
They once again found themselves trying to think of a way to fight Kosovar unemployment.
“By then we had a lot of friends, and it’s really hard to see your friends and realize they have such limited opportunities,” he said.
“We started thinking of things that we could do that would really have an impact in Kosovo,” he said. “Being an engineer, I began to think of engineering things.”
In 2010, he started Genesis Technology Center, where about 40 students are learning technology skills through lab work and lectures. He was trying to teach practical skills that students were not learning in their university classes, but need to get a job.
Students and some experts say that technology education in Kosovo is outdated. More than 45 percent of employers at technology companies surveyed by the tech industry organization STIKK said it took more than three months to train their employees.
“There is a definite skills gap,” Noble said. “If you’re attending university and learning computer science, you’ll probably learn theory and a little Java.”
Students studying at Genesis are happy to talk about how they love the center but are frustrated that they did not learn these skills at universities. Some said that they were cheated.
Twenty-five-year-old Alban Ehlani is one of those frustrated students. He just transferred to the University of Business and Technology, hoping to receive better technology education. He said he needed training from the technology center because universities tend to teach theory, but not practical, modern skills.
“How can you work as an engineer for something when you are not prepared from the university?” he asked. “Either you have to make the university better, or you have to create those centers.”
He said if the government expects to create technology jobs, it is going to have to create higher standards for its universities.
“I think it should start from the government to make rules for the professors, to train them or to get new ones…If the system changes, then things will change,” he said.
Hajrizi, president of UBT, said accusations of shoddy education do not apply to his university.
“Not in our case,” he said. “They can maybe speak for public university, but not for us because we have a very good curriculum according to international standards.”
Hajrizi has taught in London and Vienna and he said students are learning what they need to compete in the international market.
He added that UBT has a very strong relationship with technology companies in Kosovo and abroad and that relationship will help his students succeed.
He said that people should not let their lack of confidence prevent them from trying entering the market.
“Sometimes people say ‘No, Kosovo is small, we are not well developed, we cannot.’ It’s sometimes a self-resistance to go and develop,” Hajrizi said.
The technology sector is small but growing. More than one-fourth of technology companies were incorporated after 2006.
Existing companies, like TekFuze, don’t hire enough people to make a dent in unemployment rates. As of 2010, more than 75 percent of tech companies employed fewer than 20 people.
In 2011, Noble also became one of those small technology employers when he beganTekFuze, a business making circuit boards that would hire unemployed engineers.
He said it was hard to convince students to take classes at the center, when there were no jobs for them to turn to with their new skills.
Noble’s 14 employees are optimistic and excited to talk about the company. They said having a good job allows them to stay in Kosovo.
“Maybe TekFuze can grow up and employ others, because it is a good company and I am doing exactly what I studied to do,” Ehlani said.
Noble emphasized that his employees and students are the exception.
“On the other hand, I know people who live, sleep, eat and breathe while thinking ‘Get me out of here,’” he said.
Creating a culture of innovation may take a while.
He said people are used to investing in smaller ventures like family-owned grocery stores that can quickly make a small profit and will probably never experience much growth.
Technology, however, requires lots of time, money and experimentation, but has the potential for much larger gains.
Noble said he hopes to give students confidence to reach their potential, because students can be tentative.
“You have to do a lot of encouraging — a lot of ‘It’s OK, you won’t hurt it,’” he explained.
Noble said he tries to work with this by pointing out to students the times he makes mistakes and struggles.
“I’ve been in this game for 25 years,” he said. “And I want to let them know that I still do things where I’m just not thinking.”
Noble said he hopes that people will pursue bigger goals and more innovative ideas.
“I’m not yet seeing a lot of people trying to start companies that could make a significant wave,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m seeing bad ideas, but I’m not seeing a lot of transformative ideas. I’m seeing a lot of ‘me too’ type ideas.”
He gave an example of a student seeing someone designing web pages, then wanting to start a company designing web pages.
Noble said it will take time and examples of success stories to create the technology growth spurt that Kosovo needs. “Innovation builds upon innovation.”
(Kaitlin Schroeder is a reporting intern at KosovaLive in partnership with Miami University in the United States.)
Published: July 17, 2012 at http://kosovalive.com