The race for the iron rice bowl

The race for the iron rice bowl

This Ramadan, on August 26, a crowd of unemployed university graduates broke their fast outside the prime ministerial residence. Hundreds of demonstrators coming from all around the country condemned their government’s indecision on public service employment. This happened in Rabat, Morocco, but it could have easily been in Ankara. Figures and emails I have received from unemployed university graduates attest to this. Let me tell you why this is a problem.

Turkey has a centralized civil service examination system (KPSS) that people have to take in order to be admitted into the civil service. China also has central civil service exams and in 2010, 1.4 million Chinese university graduates sat for the exam. That same year, there were about 800 thousand participants in Turkey, and in 2009 about 1 million Chinese citizens. This year, about a million university graduates filed an application to sit for the exam in Turkey. So here is another proof that Turkey is becoming more like China. Both countries now have at least a million people looking for jobs in the public sector.

The Chinese are after the “iron rice bowl,” a term used for public sector job security as well as steady income and benefits. Traditionally, these coveted jobs are found in civil service, the military and various state-run enterprises. The figures above show that Turkish university graduates are now also increasingly after the iron rice bowl. Year after year, the number of participants to KPSS has increased in Turkey, and so has the number of civil servants. 

As far as I can see, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the number of civil servants in Turkey at the moment. Turkey is not like Iraq for example. Iraq has a labor force of about 7.5 million and about 3 million public servants. If Turkey was like its southern neighbor, it would have to have about 10.4 million civil servants with its labor force of about 26 million. Turkey however, had about 2.6 million civil servants as of 2012. Share of employment in the public sector is still under the OECD average of 15 percent. 

So what is the problem? It is the percentage of university graduates racing after the iron rice bowl. While the share of public service employment is around 10 percent, 57 percent of university graduates between the ages of 22 to 29 applied for KPSS this year. That means that a highly disproportional number of university graduates in Turkey are looking for a civil service job. Now, let me put this in a more appropriate format:

The above figures warn us that there is either;

a) A problem with the skills set of Turkish university graduates,
b) A problem with the job creation capacity of the Turkish economy,
c) All of the above 

I think you know my answer.