Young Belarusians do not want to become engineers, physicists and mathematicians anymore. They want to become programmers.
The 2012 university admissions campaign in Belarus has just finished and reflects a very interesting trend. However young Belarusians do not want to become engineers, physicists and mathematicians anymore. They want to become programmers — the representatives of almost the only profession that guarantees independence and a decent living standard immediately after and even before graduation.
A decade ago the cliché “IT specialist” image in Belarus included all features of a stereotypical computer geek: uncut hair, a worn-out sweater and other attributes of a modest bachelor's life. Now they form a distinct Belarusian — primarily Minsk — cohort with a label of successfulness and independence unparalleled in other sectors of the struggling Belarusian economy. To a large extent this happened due to the reasonable regulatory approach to the IT industry in Belarus.
Wealthy boys and girls
According to the Belarusian National Statistics Committee “Bielastat”, the average programmer’s salary approaches $1,300 per month. It is about three times higher than the average salary across the country, which currently is under $450 per month. Employment websites are full of vacancies for IT specialists. Competitions titled Best IT Company to Work For become more popular to attract the brightest assets. Public respect is taken for granted. All these advantages target primarily a group of young people in their 20s who have recently graduated from Belarusian universities.
Saying that programmers are just lucky would be unjust. Their efforts and talent deserve real respect. This year once again, in the Belarusian State University passing scores to the programmers’ alma mater — Faculty of Applied Mathematics — were considerably higher than to any other natural science faculty: 321–345 (depending on speciality) out of 400 possible points. Passing scores for most other natural science specialities remained well below 300.
But even the admittedly talented students find curriculum of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics difficult. At the same time, they have to do plenty of extra-curriculum studies, because the university provides only basic knowledge of programming languages.
However, the graduates get paid for every drop of their efforts because the Belarusian IT industry is ready to remunerate their skills and continues to grow.
High technologies park
The favourable environment for IT business in Belarus started to develop in 2005 with the adoption of the presidential decree “On the High Technologies Park”. The decree established the High Technologies Park for 15 years to support the national software industry. Since that time the High Technologies Park represents a specific part of the territory of the city of Minsk and its residents have a number of benefits in the spheres of taxation, immigration and foreign currency transactions.
Tax benefits are probably the most impressive. For instance, the High Technologies Park’s residents are not subject to profits tax, VAT on turnover from sale of goods and rendering services in the territory of Belarus, or customs duties and VAT with respect to goods imported into Belarus. Preferential personal income tax rate (9 per cent instead of statutory 12 per cent) applies to profits of individuals earned working at the High Technologies Park. Withholding tax rate on income from dividends, interests, royalties if the source of payment of such income are significantly lower than the normal rate.
Thanks to the favourable legal environment, the High Technologies Park has expanded quickly and currently hosts 109 residents. Half of them are foreign companies and joint ventures. Branches of world leaders in software production of Belarusian origin such as EPAM Systems, Sam Solutions and IBA Group are also among the High Technologies Park’s residents. The list of consumers of the High Technologies Park’s software includes Mitsubishi, British Petroleum, London Stock Exchange, World Bank, Coca-Cola and many others.
Stop the brain drain
There is nothing unusual about big demand for Belarusian programmers. Respect for post-soviet schools of math and physics that laid the foundation for programmers’ qualification has always been high. But until recent years that resulted in a huge outflow of bright graduating students to foreign countries.
Despite their interest in Belarusian programmers, major international companies were unwilling to enter the market even for outsource out of prudence. The High Technologies Park’s tax incentives became the second and decisive reason for starting an IT business in Belarus. Success of the first foreign IT companies attracted others, and finally Belarusian programmers became able to find good jobs in their home country.
Belarusian programmers still earn much less than their USA colleagues — about $88,000 per year in the USA compared to approximately $15,000 in Belarus. However, this can allow for quite a well-off life thanks to Belarus's relatively low cost of living. For example, monthly rent for a good two-bedroom flat is about $370. Since the difference in real income is not that striking, programmers take into account their wish to be with families and friends and often choose to stay in Belarus rather than go overseas.
End of the fairy tale?
While programmers prosper in Belarus now, many predict the end to their era and explain such apprehensions by the forthcoming oversaturation of the Belarusian labour market with skilled specialists. However right was the concept of diminishing marginal utility as such, it is too early to apply it to IT in Belarus. The export share in the total production volume of the High Technologies Park is 80 per cent. That means that it is only the world’s labour market saturation which they should be afraid of, which is very unlikely.
In the meantime, what seems to be a real threat to the current peace and quiet is that in 2020 the privileges of the High Technologies Park will terminate. Will doing business in Belarus still be so attractive to IT companies? It is not only programmers who worry about this. The best of them will always have the chance to get a job abroad. But the IT sphere feeds a number of related professions and administrative staff, provide the country with foreign currency and accelerates consumption in the country. This is a challenge Belarus is going in eight years, and it is already time to think about it.