PRIZREN/ORAHOVAC, Kosovo -- Frustrated by the job prospects in Kosovo, where unemployment is astronomical and prospects are bleak amid rampant corruption, Dusan Stojanovic and Kerim Pervizaj opted to return to their families' artisanal past to pay the bills.
Stojanovic now toils over a potter's wheel, churning out crockery and other items while Pervizaj works with tin to produce dishes, cookers, and even ovens.
Both are happy to be working and making money, but frustrated and even ashamed they couldn't find the jobs for which they were trained.
Finding jobs has long been a challenge for the 1.8 million people of Europe's newest country, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to push its forces out of Kosovo. Unemployment stood at a whopping 25.5 percent in 2020, according to data from the World Bank.
Youth unemployment is off the charts, hovering near 50 percent. Kosovo is a young nation, with a median age of 29.5 years, the lowest in Europe. And many of those young people are now qualified for more skilled jobs as never before as university enrolment has risen in recent years.
Those lucky enough to find work are often remunerated poorly, with pay only a fraction compared to similar positions elsewhere in Europe. Given that reality, many in Kosovo have left in search of a brighter future abroad, namely the EU.
The thought of getting out has crossed the mind of Stojanovic, who lives in Orahovac in western Kosovo, an ethnic Serbian enclave, known in Albanian as Rahovec.
"There is no future, and I feel a sense of shame. Most of the people I know have left for a better life and it has worked out for them. It's probably likely that I'll have to do the same, although I've been against it," Stojanovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
"Why did I get an education? I wasted my parents' money, and I won't be able to pay them back for years, let alone take care of myself."
Stojanovic, 30, got a college degree in 2014, followed five years later with a master's degree in occupational safety engineering. He sent out résumés and made queries to businesses and institutions in Kosovo, including those owned or run by ethnic Serbs.
"My friends tell me that I went to school for nothing, which hurts. Many have gotten married, found work even with a high-school degree, and I have neither," he laments.
As time ticked by and with no job in sight, Stojanovic pondered turning to pottery, a skill he learned from his father in his childhood.
Now he works alongside his father, continuing a family tradition that stretches back five generations. He said the work calls for patience, as the clay requires hours to dry before it can be painstakingly painted and then baked in a special oven.
Just 40 kilometers away in Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, Pervizaj has a similar tale to tell. He graduated with a physical education degree in 2019, specializing in soccer training and coaching, but has had no luck landing a job.
"I dealt with a lot of injustices when I tried to get a physical-education job here in Prizren. They accepted people who had lower qualifications than me. I took action several times to prove this. I had no luck," Pervizaj told RFE/RL.
Unlike Stojanovic, Pervizaj is married and felt the pressure even more to find gainful employment. But like Stojanovic, he too turned to artisanal work by becoming a tinsmith, also a family trade by tradition.
Both agree their fate is not unique in Kosovo, with many young people facing similar problems and challenges as well as the dilemma of whether to stay or go to seek a better life abroad, usually somewhere in the EU.
"One step forward, two steps back -- that's the situation here. Young professionals are leaving because they can't get a job or one that pays the minimum wage. My cousin used to make 400 euros (about $400) here, and now [in Germany] 3,000 euros. It will be a tough decision, but if I have to I'll leave," concluded Pervizaj.
The gulf in average wages between Kosovo and EU countries "is staggering," according to the World Bank. "Among young workers (ages 15-29), the highest entry-level wages in Kosovo are obtained in public administration with an annual wage of around 5,000 euros. The lowest wages are accrued in entry-level positions in commerce, manufacturing, construction, public utilities and agriculture, ranging from 3,000 to 3,700 euros (based on survey estimates). In contrast, reported entry position annual wages in IT and telecommunications are between 30,000 and 44,000 euros in Austria, Germany, and the U.K. compared to a broad estimate of 5,000 euros in Kosovo," the report said in 2019.
Young people in Kosovo will continue to face challenges finding jobs in Kosovo that match their skills and abilities, predicted Ismail Hasani, a retired sociologist and former lecturer at the University of Pristina, in comments to RFE/RL.
Finding a job in Kosovo "often comes with many challenges," the World Bank said.
"Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with a median age of 29.5 years, and youth are the country's great asset. The last decade has seen a significant increase in the number of young people attending university. Finding a good job upon graduation is an important milestone for young people, but the transition to employment in Kosovo often comes with many challenges. Finding solutions to improve educational and employment opportunities for young people is essential to Kosovo's development," the World Bank said.
According to the data of the Agency for Statistics of Kosovo, in the second quarter of 2021, slightly more than 95,000 citizens between the ages of 15 and 64 were unemployed. Of the 40 percent of young people who were looking for a job, 15 percent had some higher education.
According to data from the Kosovar Education Ministry for the academic year of 2021-2022, approximately 42,000 students were enrolled at nine public universities with 6,200 graduating with degrees last year.
In the same period, about 8,400 people attended master's studies, and 1,659 of them graduated. When it comes to doctoral studies, for 2021-2022, there were 328 people enrolled at the University of Pristina, and 30 of them received doctorates. There are also private faculties, attended by about 29,000 students.
A slew of factors are conspiring against all those graduates looking for work, according to the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), an NGO focusing on the Western Balkan nations. "Slow economic growth, the mismatch between education policy and labor market demands, as well as corruption and nepotism, have led to massive graduate unemployment" in Kosovo, RYCO said in 2021.
RFE/RL reached out to the Pristina government with questions about measures it is taking to tackle unemployment, especially among younger Kosovars, but did not receive any response.
In March, a government spokesman, Perparim Kryeziu, told RFE/RL that a commission had been established to study how to reform the educational system to better meet the needs of the current labor market.
In the meantime, the exodus of the country's younger generation to destinations further west is likely to not only continue but intensify, Hasani predicted.
A 2018 Gallup poll on brain drain found the problem to be the most acute in the Western Balkans. The findings showed that 42 percent of those questioned in Kosovo expressed a desire to emigrate, the highest such figure for Europe and third in the world.
Despite promises from Brussels, Kosovo remains the only country in continental Europe besides Russia and Belarus outside the EU's visa-free regime, which allows those outside the bloc to enter the Schengen area for 90 days over a six-month period.
Instead, people in Kosovo need to apply for a visa to the EU and the Schengen area, a time-consuming and expensive process. Despite those roadblocks, Hasani said many in Kosovo are ready to pay to leave the country, illegally if necessary, convinced that "somewhere else a better future awaits them."