So Poland is facing a “Labour shortage”. True, in that Polish employers can’t find the staff they need at the wage they can afford to pay. There is also a “shortage” of large houses in central London that I can buy on a journalist’s salary. There is a “shortage” of luxury sports cars, Rembrandts, Caribbean islands…you name it.
The truth is that life is full of things that are not available at the price we would like to pay—or that we have got used to paying.
The market has a partial answer to this. It is a fair bet that if Polish hospitals paid American salaries, it would be no problem to attract plenty of nurses, doctors, technicians and cleaners.
But of course the state (or rather the Polish taxpayer) cannot afford to solve the problem just with money.
Neither can Polish private-sector employers. Particularly in lower-skilled sectors, they are increasingly finding that the wages needed to attract enough workers are not matched by those workers’ productivity.
So what to do? Imagine a maths teacher in Poland earning €500 a month, considering moving to Britain. The chance of earning £2,000 a month is one reason to move. Others include: quality of public services; quality of management and workplace relations; prospects for training; leisure opportunities; optimism about the future.
At the moment, all of these count against Poland, creating a “premium” for living and working in, say, Britain and a “discount” for staying at home.
As a Briton, I am not proud of my country’s health, education, transport, policing and other public services. They are run-down, badly managed, overcrowded and complacent. Still, I recognise that compared to most post-communist countries, they are pretty good. If you get ill in Britain, the National Health Service offers world-class medical care for free. That is not the case in Poland.
Then comes the quality of life at work. Polish employers—especially in the public sector—have largely missed the management revolution of the past 40 years. Information is guarded jealously; status counts for a lot; initiative is discouraged, or even punished. “A boss is someone in a big office who shouts at people”. I personally don’t find British management particularly good (compared, say to the way Scandinavian companies are run). There are authoritarian, secretive, temperamental bosses. But I reckon they are rarer than in Poland.
Then there is relationships with colleagues. Britain, along with some other north European countries scores highly in polls about “public trust”. Relations in the British workplace tend to be amiable—more so, perhaps, than in a large Polish bureaucracy.
Next comes education. Polish employers tend to be rather poor investors in their staff. In Britain, particularly in the public sector, on-the-job training is part of the system. It doesn’t work very well (indeed a lot of it is a complete waste of money) but it does offer room for an ambitious newcomer to learn some more skills. Rather more importantly, Living in Britain is like taking thousands of hours of free-of-charge language lessons. Poles who work in shops or restaurants quickly polish their accent, stretch their vocabularly and improve their understanding of the world’s most important business language. You don’ tget that at home.
Living abroad is more fun, too. London is probably the most interesting city in the world. Polish cities are great, but they don’t compare. Polish small towns can be pretty dull (which gets back to the poor state of public services). Even a small provincial British town will have more in the way of nightlife, sports facilities. Particularly for young people, that matters
Finally, there is the question of optimism. People will put up with a lot if they think that life is going to improve. If they feel pessimistic about their country, or their own chances there, they tend to be more willing to consider radical changes, such as moving abroad. Despite Poland’s strong economic growth rate, robust democracy and strong international alliances, the country’s incompetent and quarrelsome politicians have failed to communicate to the voters a feeling that Poland is on the right track.
Put all these factors together, and it is easy to see why Polish public services are finding it hard to keep staff. They offer ill-paid badly managed jobs with few prospects, where connections matter more than talent. Quality of life inside and outside the workplace leaves a lot to be desired. Prospects elsewhere are bright. As the brightest and best people leave, conditions become steadily less attractive for those left behind.
That is the bad news. The good news is that all these problems are soluble. Polish public services could improve sharply if they were better managed. 20 years since the collapse of communism, it is astonishing that so many are run without the interests of the “customers”—ie the patients, pupils, and other citizens—in mind. Estonia has revolutionised its public services by a mixture of decentralisation, liberalisation (meaning competition) and most of all e-government. It is remarkable that a country as poor and backward as Georgia has been willing to take the Estonian example on board, and launch its own radical public-sector reforms, and Poland has shown so little interest in the subject.
Good public services are not just attractive to their users. They also find it easier to attract and keep good staff. Teachers like working in a well-run school. A good school makes every parent in the locality think twice about wanting to work abroad.
Poland stands before an important choice. Either it makes a serious effort to make itself attractive for its own people: not just paying them decent salaries, but offering high-quality public services, if not immediately, but at least as a realistic prospect in the coming years. The aim is to tempt tens of thousands of migrants who have left provisionally to come back, enriching the country with their newly acquired skills, languages, outlook and experience. This is already happening to some extent in the private sector: people who have made some money abroad are coming home to pursue business opportunities that they have spotted. But it is not yet happening in a big way in the public sector.
If Poland fails to do this, it faces a much bleaker prospect: a vicious circle of declining public services where the best people leave, the management worsens, and quality of life for everyone declines. The example of southern Italy shows what problems bad government can create: entrenched corruption, depopulation and hopelessness.
Only Poland can solve this problem. European Union structural funds make the solution easier, but they do not substitute for the political will and imagination needed. Democratic pressure over the past 20 years has not really persuaded politicians that this matters. But now millions of people are voting in a different way: with their feet. That should signal the urgency of the task.