How to increase employability of vulnerable returnees?

UNDP and the EU support solutions for sustainable employment among vulnerable returnees in North Macedonia.

January 17, 2023

Roma returnees in Trizla neighbourhood in Prilep, North Macedonia.

Photo: UNDP Eurasia / Sanja Knežević

“Of course I would like a full-time job, a good job…I want to have a regular salary…But I cannot read or write.”

Demir Demireli is a 38-year-old returnee from Europe, now on-demand construction worker in his hometown in North Macedonia. With the summer season over, demand in the sector is plummeting, leaving Demir with thinning daily payouts and long winter months ahead, struggling to take care of his ill wife and four children.

The number of people with similar pathways is not small in North Macedonia. The majority of returnees are Roma, many of whom decide to leave the country because of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. From our assessments carried out in 2021, we know that most of asylum seekers and returnees are in the 30-44 age group, with a low level of education.

Employment is singled out as the biggest challenge reported by returnees. It’s also an important channel for ensuring economic and social prosperity of vulnerable citizens.

That’s why we’re taking a holistic approach to ensure returnees and Roma enhance their employability prospects. Our EU-funded regional project works in Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia to support institutions with solutions for economic and social reintegration of vulnerable returnees.

Here are five things we’ve learned so far in North Macedonia:

1) Engagement with private sector and “deep listening” ensures returnees receive targeted support to improve their employment prospects

To gain deeper understanding, we connected with the private sector to learn the challenges and opportunities of the labour markets in partner-municipalities of Prilep, Shtip and Shuto Orizari.  For example, we learned that the demand for skilled workforce exceeds the supply in nearly all industries, and that specific skills gaps persist. Ongoing restructuring of local industry creates a demand for new sets of skills and extensive migration of young people contribute to the labour market mismatch.   Meanwhile, lack of adequate skills and education are considered the main barrier to employment for vulnerable citizens, including returnees. Fifty percent of surveyed unemployed Roma haven’t completed primary education or are lacking market-demanded skills, and there is widespread informality of jobs held by Roma and returnees.

2) A holistic approach to skill development leads to effective returnee employability    

Employers are often looking for skills that go beyond technical qualifications and experience. To get employed, returnees also need digital and “soft” skills, which are “building blocks” of one’s overall employability.  Based on the identified skill gaps and local demand in the private sector, we prepared a package of trainings to boost these skills.  Technical and vocational education training programmes help returnees get specialized technical skills and fast-track their employment.   Shorter-term cycles of soft and digital skills trainings also reflect the demands of the labor market.   These trainings will be aligned with on-the-job learning, internships and apprenticeships in local companies, as well as individual professional mentoring during the learning process. Returnees who have dropped out of school are encouraged and supported to complete compulsory primary education through available adult education programmes.

3) A shared vision with partners and a shared platform for engagement of all local stakeholders

Municipalities, NGOs and other service providers are an integral part of planning and realizing employability activities, such as trainings and individual employability plans for returnees and Roma.  We need to ensure they are equal partners and owners of the process.

We developed close partnerships with local authorities to integrate project activities into the broader municipal frameworks. With our support, three municipalities in North Macedonia- Prilep, Shtip and Shuto Orizari-  developed Local Economic Development strategies, inclusive of returnees’ and Roma’s needs including employment. Through a highly consultative and participatory process, inputs were collected from returnees and other vulnerable groups, the municipal government, local business community, NGOs, and other local service-providers.

As a next step, the three partner municipalities are organizing wider consultation with stakeholders which will lead to formal strategy approval by the municipal councils.

4) Systemic support unlocks entrepreneurship potential and facilitates the transition from informal to formal business  

Returnees and Roma also face challenges when they have a good business idea and entrepreneurial spirit to start their own business.  They often have limited financial capital and business networks needed to start a business, as well as limited management skills and knowledge on topics such as business planning, financial management or legislation, including tax regulations and other.  Many viable business ideas of returnees and Roma remain informal due to lack of systematic support. To support them, especially young and innovative returnees with ideas that can generate income and jobs, we’re providing start-up grants to help open new or formalize existing businesses. We’ll also provide targeted support to enhance their business management skills, knowledge to operate a formal business and access to networks of entrepreneurs.

5) Scaling up successful models and institutionalizing solutions are key to sustainable reintegration of returnees

Success stories prove the model must not remain local – and doesn’t have to. Scaling comes through role models inspiring their peers and by institutionalizing tested solutions. We’ll share the proven practices across municipalities in North Macedonia but also across borders too, with the local and central governments in the Western Balkans.

Embedding project efforts in the existing institutional framework is important for sustainability and ownership. Thanks to project efforts in advocating for returnees’ employability status, employment measures and employability trainings for returnees have become part, for the first time, of the National Operational Employment Plan, a strategic document by the Employment Service Agency of North Macedonia. By recognizing returnees as a separate category in the national plan, we ensure acknowledgment of returnees’ employability challenges and reinforce the need for focused solution by local and central institutions.


The Reintegration of returnees in the Western Balkans project is focused on addressing key institutional barriers for reintegration of vulnerable returnees, and drivers of social and economic exclusion and outmigration in the Western Balkans, such as limited work opportunities, low-paid jobs, large informal sector and poor quality of social services.