CAREER

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the job market in Kazakhstan? Experts share their opinions

First came shock, as we heard news about the coronavirus. Then came stress, as we learned to live under quarantine, whether that meant working from home (while keeping up with chores and helping the kids with homework), or losing a job because of layoffs or closing businesses. Now, life goes on, but whether you’ve been able to keep your job or are looking for work, we’re all faced with the same question: How do we adapt to this new reality? In search of an answer, we turned to experts who could help us navigate this unusual new job market.
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With this story, we’re introducing a new special feature at Manshuq - "The Future of Jobs." We’re preparing a ton of interesting articles, enlightening podcasts and special content on social media. If you have any questions and are looking for answers, shoot them over to hello@manshuq.com!

Oksana Tkachenko 

Operational Manager of ANCOR Central Asia

Alexey Lee

CEO of arbuz.kz

Inna Apenko

Founder of the Kazakh children's clothing brand Mimioriki

What’s happening in today’s job market in Kazakhstan?

Oksana Tkachenko:

In recent months, the job market has shown a serious decline in the number of open positions. At the same time, people who otherwise might be thinking of changing jobs have begun to weigh their options more carefully, sticking with the stability of their existing positions rather than exploring a change in their careers. For now, the labor market is frozen — employers and job candidates alike are in a holding pattern.


Businesspeople today are asking themselves how their business should adapt to stay in demand. There’s no time left to sit and analyze the situation, because the most creative people have already started taking up new ideas and new solutions. Everybody has a chance to stay ahead of the game, especially freelancers and professionals who are nimble enough to go with the flow.

In the Kazakh labor market, who’s been most affected by the pandemic?

Oksana Tkachenko:

This summer, when the first wave of coronavirus began to subside in July, our company ANCOR Central Asia did some research, surveying professionals across a variety of industries about how they were being affected by the crisis.


With the situation we’re in, staff reductions on some scale are simply inevitable. But as of now, only 12% of respondents to our survey said they were considering layoffs. That means that if layoffs do indeed go forward, then they’ll mostly affect employees whose responsibilities can be easily redistributed without negative consequences to the overall business.

Inna Apenko:

The first difficulty we faced because of the pandemic was when shopping centers were closed, which for us, as a business built on retail, blocked our main source of cash flow. Then, because travel between cities was blocked, we couldn’t physically get to our production site — our management team is in Almaty, but our factory is in the suburb of Talgar. We still found a way, and production hasn’t shut down for even a single day. It was really important for us to save the jobs of our production line workers, because they’re the ones who come from the most vulnerable segments of the population. Of these employees, 99% are women from the towns of Talgar and Tekeli, and many of them are the main breadwinners in their families.


We didn’t have to let anybody go and no one lost their job, either on the production line or in retail. The only consequence was that in April we had to cut our management team’s salaries by 30%, but thankfully our employees were incredibly understanding about the situation. By June, we were back to the usual payroll, and now we’re already back to working as usual.

Who was able to make a pivot during the pandemic and how can others follow their example?

Alexey Lee:

During the quarantine, our online orders increased, but later the numbers went back to normal. When the whole crisis began, there were a few steps we took. We had to make a lot of changes in how we run our operations: we shifted some employees to remote work, and we had to change our hiring rules because people had problems getting around the city.

Inna Apenko:

The world is changing fast, and we should all have the ability to adapt. Even before the pandemic got to Kazakhstan, we had already started to pivot our production. When the virus was taking off in China and Europe, we developed a reusable mask made from antibacterial materials. Up until March 20, we were going around to all the main drugstore chains in Almaty and offering them our product, so when the quarantine went into place, we were one of the first manufacturers that the pharmacies collaborated with. From the end of March to April, masks were the only thing we made, and we were able to produce more than 300,000 of them. For us, it was also about being civically minded - the country just didn’t have enough masks and it was important to meet the demand.


After looking at how the market was changing, we launched a new line called Family Sport. We were able to survive the quarantine without suffering major losses because people generally spend more for adult apparel, and customers were buying items that were better suited for spending time at home or going out with their families. Now, as a result of the quarantine, this product line makes up 40% of our sales. That doesn’t mean we grew overall by 40% during quarantine, because there was also a dramatic fall in sales of children's apparel, but we managed to find a new niche for ourselves that has met a growing demand.


We’d expected that the market for online shopping would develop over the next three to five years, but the pandemic brought all our sales online in just two weeks. We started actively selling our products on Instagram, of course, but we also turned to online marketplaces, and especially Kaspi.kz, which has become a major competitor for all brick-and-mortar retail locations in the country in terms of their rate of growth in sales. We started working with the Russian site Wildberries, too. The future is definitely online.

How has the rise in working remotely changed your business?

Alexey Lee:

We’ve always been a company that incorporates best practices from other online businesses, especially international businesses, so we use a number of different methods for management and team interaction. Employees should be more independent, for example, and should be able to ask questions. With the transition to remote work, a lot has changed, because before it was possible to ask something in person, and now many more traditional companies have struggled with the challenge that employees aren’t physically present all the time; but thanks to the ability to work from home, they have more autonomy. For us, however, this was a transition we were able to make pretty comfortably.

Inna Apenko:

Working remotely has become totally normal, and in my experience we haven’t become any less efficient — if anything, it’s the opposite. Before, you could show up at the office and just being present was part of how you showed you were doing your job. Now that we’re working remotely, you always have to show results, or otherwise your work is invisible - hitting your KPIs ends up mattering more than ever .


We cut down on office space because after we shifted to remote work, most of our management team agreed that they didn’t want to come back to the office. We still have some meetings in person, but a lot of problems can be solved online instead. Personally I’m a little more used to it, because I split my time between two countries - my husband’s from Moscow, while my business and my family are in Almaty. Several years back I tried working remotely from Moscow and it was really a challenge, because everyone in Kazakhstan was so used to meeting in person. In a way, I'm glad that the quarantine taught everyone that you can work anywhere while being just as efficient, whether it's from your apartment or from another country. Now I’m in Moscow, but I’m still working, and it’s perfectly easy to stay in touch with my coworkers, my partners, and even with officials from the government.

What kind of professionals are most sought after in Kazakhstan’s job market today?

Alexey Lee:

We have two major kinds of work. First we have positions to handle operations, jobs that require a lot of physical labor - things like working in our distribution center or working with logistics. For this, we’re constantly looking to hire new couriers and warehouse workers.


Then, in addition to openings that involve physical labor, we have a constant demand for the kind of engineers and managers who can quickly adapt to new conditions, yet absorb traditional know-how at the same time.

Inna Apenko:

As a manufacturing company, we need highly-specialized workers who are quite rare in the labor pool, like production engineers with experience in the garment industry or qualified designers who can not only use design software but also make clothes. For our management personnel, we need highly qualified employees with a background in marketing. These should be specialists who can cope with many different tasks at once, like most of the people on our team. And of course, we always need business professionals, because there aren’t very many people in our country who know how to build a brand, especially a domestic one. It’s important to track trends and invest in yourself as a professional.

What kind of professionals will be in demand in the near future?

Oksana Tkachenko:

We can already see the growth of e-commerce in Kazakhstan. More and more companies are realizing the need to promote and run their business using social networks and resources online. This leads to a logical conclusion: in the near future, the professions that will be most in demand will be those related to digital, IT, big data — anybody who can easily adapt to online commerce. In the short term, crisis managers and experts in HR and digital transformation will be highly sought after.

Alexey Lee:

During the quarantine, we’ve had a big boom in operations, and we’ve needed to hire couriers and warehouse workers, looking for candidates through specialized job boards online. We expect that the company will continue to grow in the coming years, so we’ll regularly have new jobs, new openings, and new roles to fill.

Inna Apenko:

In the future, we’ll have a growing need in our company for quality professionals in marketing and online management. The entire field is actively moving into the online ecosystem, and for us this is something totally new. Therefore, we’ll need people who can work and interact with online marketplaces, to create and manage online stores, and to handle accounts on social networks.

What do you think are “the jobs of the future”?

Alexey Lee:

The future of work is related to the knowledge economy, things like digital marketing, product management, and programming (both mobile development and back-end). At a certain point, there will be a growing demand for specialists in the field of machine learning.


As for skills, if I had to choose between an employee with a good education but not much experience, and someone who has a lot of experience but not much education, I’d choose someone else entirely - somebody with both a good education and plenty of experience.


For roles that involve mental labor, these are the most important assets:

Being proactive. When a person isn’t just motivated by short-term profits or leadership, but has inner strength and the ability to stay motivated. 
Professional knowledge, and the ability to find, filter and assimilate information.  
The ability to communicate and cooperate with others. It’s important to be able to disagree, not just to carry out orders, and to be able to make a reasoned argument while also considering other points of view.

A great education can never replace experience, although both are important. I only realized this myself after I made my own mistakes. Even if someone is smart and fresh out of school, they still need to gain experience. Graduates shouldn’t be looking for places with high salaries, but places where they can pick up invaluable experience in their first five years. That’s what’ll make the biggest difference in their career later on.

Where do you think the Kazakh job market is headed in the near future?

Oksana Tkachenko:

The end of the pandemic should bring some positive outcomes for certain new kinds of work, but a whole range of industries will continue to face serious threats. The worst hit is the tourism sector, travel agents and tour guides especially. The quarantine has accelerated trends in automation and digitalization that began even before the pandemic, and these could pose a threat to a wide range of job positions: junior employees of specialized departments, junior analysts, legal advisers, bank managers, realtors, event managers, translators, teachers and tutors, and basically anybody whose work can be automated, partially or completely.

Alexey Lee:

Of course, there will be changes in the Kazakhstani labor market. Now everything is changing. The taxi market, for example, has been transformed in just a matter of years. These changes mean that new skills will be needed in any line of work. Overall, trends show that more people are emigrating out of the country, and this will continue and maybe even increase. But then a new generation will arrive. There will always be new specialists, and as some professionals decide to leave, more jobs will open up. If you have certain skills, like soft skills, and a deep understanding of your profession, you’ll be prepared for the future of work.
Cover: Aziza Kireyeva

Photographs supplied by the featured experts. 

This project is supported by a grant provided by the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan.


Данный проект реализуется с помощью гранта от Посольства США в Нур-Султане, Казахстан. Мнения, выраженные в материалах, принадлежат их авторам и не обязательно отражают точку зрения Правительства США или Дипломатической Миссии США в Казахстане. 

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