interview by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Nelly Tomova

Irena Joteva, Managing Partner at HILL International Bulgaria, on how to navigate in the times of global labour market transformation

Irena Joteva.jpg

New technologies have changed the way we work, entertain ourselves, do shopping. They have also changed the way companies work. New regulations and professions are appearing, entire business sectors are transforming beyond recognition. Inevitably this has reflected on the way companies hire and retain employees, and on the labour market in general. Combined with other factors in play in Bulgaria, like local business climate and increasing shortage of workforce, this changing environment is a challenge for both companies and employees.

In this situation, the expertise of HILL International Bulgaria is invaluable. HILL was the first HR company to arrive in the country, in 1991, and ever since has offered innovative and effective ways to manage challenges in the area of staff selection and employee and organisation development.

Irena Joteva, Managing Partner at HILL International Bulgaria, is part of the company since 2002, and is one of the best people to talk about the challenges of the global and local labour market and business.

Digital transformation is the buzzword of the day. How does this trend reflect on the companies?

Digital transformation is inevitable, it is happening before our eyes. Many businesses have already changed their entire operational processes by implementing modern technologies and many are about to do so soon. There is hardly a business function left that is not dependant on and influenced by the smart machines.

There is no need to list the benefits of the digital transformation and I fully believe in the value it brings to the business, the society and our daily life.

However, I also believe that no matter how intelligent, intuitive and self-learning machines will be invented, they will never be able to replace the humans' ingenuity and ability to develop and generate creative ideas, our sense of art and above all – to replace our sixth sense. The truth is in finding the balance between technology and the human factor.

Give us an example?

If we take HR – the administration (personal files, payroll, etc.) is managed by a software; the application and pre-screening process is almost fully automated as well as the critical communication subject of the GDPR regulation.

Hill Bulgaria

And here comes the other side of the picture – we, the humans, are still more intelligent than the machines and we can outsmart them during an automated pre-selection process – with key words in the application documents, as a basic example. So, the downside of relying fully on technology is that we might miss some really good people just because they are a bit behind in smart machines.

What actions should companies undertake in this situation?

As this affects all businesses, I can give an example what we, at HILL, did. We analysed our business model and operations and we singled out the processes that can be automated, partially or fully, and the ones for which the human factor is crucial. After that we modified the processes accordingly. Sounds quite easy but as we all know the reality is a bit different – takes time, money and a lot of effort.

Hill Bulgaria

In my view, the trend is that businesses are bound to polarise in the future. The manufacturing, for example, will continue towards full automation and robotisation. A report by the analysis firm Oxford Economics (2019) says that by 2030 robots introduced into the manufacturing sector will take 20 million jobs away from humans. And at the same time, there will be businesses and/or functions that will remain strongly dependant on the human factor as the driver – surprisingly IT is one of them. As experts say, developers are hard (even impossible) to be replaced.

Here it is also important to mention the new professions and roles that will emerge, especially as a result of the digital transformation – digital trainers, for example, with their aim to help the chatbot strike the right tone. There should be someone to train the bot to embody the company' corporate culture (Boulton Cl., CIO magazine, March 2018). The machines will follow orders, will perform analysis, will outline patterns but the human is who will develop the machine itself.

Hill Bulgaria

The other trend that we already observe, and it will continue to enhance, is the need of a personal focus and approach in people management. Strongly expressed with the so called new generations – Millennials and Gen Zs, the one-to-one contact, the immediate feedback and personal recognition, the focus on every single employee's well-being, will become more and more crucial for the overall success of an organisation. So, in my eyes, the other action the companies need to undertake is to take special care of their managers. The managers will need to broaden their responsibilities and skills, being accountable not only for the work done well, but also that people are happy and satisfied. And this could be a real challenge.

How will the labour market look like in three years? How can companies prepare for it?

The key problem for our economy will be the shortage of personnel. If we only take the demographics, the prognosis is shocking – 4% decrease in 3 years, and almost 12% till 2030. The companies should invest in training and development – of their own employees, as well as to start or continue the cooperation with schools and universities for attracting the young ones. They should also consider hiring people over 50 years of age, wherever possible with regards to the business operations. People with disabilities is another group of potential employees, again wherever possible. But above all, the companies need to consider seriously their employer branding as it will be the critical and key selling proposition for attracting and retaining people in the future.

Irena Joteva

I would also like to mention one specific of the Bulgarian labour market, based on our observation in the last few years. Contrary to the increasing shortage of people with no or low qualification – operators and specialists, the pool of personnel on mid- and high-level position remains the same and is even growing. In other words – there are qualified and experienced people on the market, and they have become even more than before. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more top-level managers on the market who face difficulties finding a new job. There are reasonable and objective reasons for them losing their jobs related to companies' restructuring and optimisation, mergers and acquisitions, implementation of new technologies, etc. Many of them struggle to find a new place they are perceived as, and in most cases they are, overqualified. I am fully aware of the potential risks hiring such professionals but having in mind the forthcoming labour force reality maybe the employers should consider this group as well.

And one more important aspect – companies need to plan a higher payroll budget as the salaries will continue to grow.

Hill Bulgaria

What is the most important thing a company should consider when hiring?

First, they need to know if they are looking for a "ready-made" person or they want to have a person with potential and why – what they offer to the new person. Second, they need to verify if the "ideal" person exists and what are the compromises they are willing to make if they cannot find or attract the ideal one. Last but not least – they need to find out what are the reasons for not being able to hire the ideal candidate and what they can do about it for the next recruitment campaign.

How can HILL International help companies to overcome these challenges?

First and foremost, we go deep before acting. Quite often the officially announced request is not the real one or it is just the tip of the iceberg. I know it sounds a cliché but it is true. Only after having a clear picture of the situation and the current need we can offer an adequate solution and action plan. We have a fully developed portfolio of tools and services that refer to personnel search and selection, evaluation and development of people as well as management and organisational development, but we have to know which need or issue we are addressing.

Hill Bulgaria

HILL International sees effective dialogue with the client as the key for the successful partnership. How do you achieve this?

We stick to our belief in asking questions and providing feedback – we ask tough questions and we share the feedback even when it is not a pleasant one to hear. When we are unable to find a solution, we also openly tell it to the client. This may sound unreasonable from sales point of view, but our professional honesty has paid off many times throughout the years. We have lots of clients who came back at a later stage just because of that honesty.

Hill Bulgaria


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