GABROVO (AFP) - Vladislav Nikolov, with shy youthful looks and sporting neat work overalls, belongs to a rare breed in Bulgaria: Apprentices.
The combination of vocational education with on-the-job training is long-established practice in countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Austria -- and a key contributing factor to the vitality of their labour markets -- but Bulgaria only began piloting such schemes a few years ago.
But with the fastest-falling population in the world, Bulgaria is increasingly turning to apprenticeship schemes to counter labour shortages that are threatening to become dramatic.
Nikolov is one of three 17-year-olds who have been taken on as an apprentice at Gabinvest, a maker of hunting rifles in Gabrovo, in the north of the country.
For a fast-growing company that is desperately short of skilled labour, the youngsters represent "a real opportunity", said technical director Plamen Petkov.
'I'd take them immediately'
"Our expansion is being hampered by the lack of qualified personnel. If 10 good candidates were to come knocking at my door, I'd take them on immediately," he said.
Nikolov himself says his apprenticeship enables him "to learn more than I do at school."
But he admits that "it's difficult to get up, arrive on time and work the whole day."
He spends two days a week in the factory and the other three at school, where he will complete his secondary education.
Just two schools and five companies took part in a 2015 pilot scheme launched by the Swiss-Bulgarian chamber of commerce.
German and Austrian companies later joined in and now 3,384 young Bulgarians are employed as apprentices at more than 200 companies.
Employer groups are desperate for workers amid a deepening demographic crisis and a massive exodus of skilled workers since the European Union's poorest country joined the bloc in 2007.
Fewer and fewer Bulgarians
According to UN forecasts, Bulgaria's population has shrunk from nine million in 1989 to around seven million now. And it is expected to dwindle to 5.4 million by 2050 -- a decline of 23 percent over three decades.
"It's not just skilled labour that is missing, it's people in general," Gabinvest's Petkov said.
Bulgaria's unemployment rate fell to 6.2 percent in 2018, its lowest level since the collapse of communism.
Studies show that alongside IT engineers and doctors, there is also a dire shortage of drivers, cooks, waitresses and waiters, locksmiths, welders and builders.
"A shortage of labour is the major problem facing companies. We've already seen foreign investors shelve their investment plans because of the labour shortage," said Radosvet Radev, president of the Bulgarian Industry Association BIA.
In the industrial sector alone, the shortage is estimated at over 100,000 workers. And overall, Bulgaria might face a gap of 500,000 workers in the next five years, experts predict.
And then there's pay
According to the EU's statistics authority Eurostat, 15 percent of 15-24 year-olds are not in education, employment or training -- five percentage points higher than the European average.
And even those young people who are at school are not being equipped with the necessary skills for work, employers complain.
"The only way to remedy the situation is to turn to the education system and recruit young people still at school," said BIA expert, Tomcho Tomov.
But that requires improving the image of apprenticeships: Many parents have bad memories of the communist regime where young people were frequently forced into manual jobs against their will.
Pay is also a key issue. With a minimum salary of 560 leva (286 euros, $327) and an average salary of just over 1,100 leva, young people are frequently lured by higher wages in other countries.
"There is a lot of demand for chefs, not only in Bulgaria, but abroad as well," said Stefani Todorova, 17, an apprentice in a restaurant in Sofia.