TALLINN - As children returned to school this week, attendance figures gave a telling snapshot of the nation's population woes. The total number of school students has dropped by 10,000 's from 175,000 in 2005 to 165,000 this year.
The number of youngsters entering the first grade increased by only 25 students, barely enough to fill one extra classroom. Four schools have even closed as a result of the low enrollment figures.
Forecasts estimate that student numbers will rise in 2007 by 500 students but will then decline in future years.
Demographers say the student dip is the fruition of a birth rate decrease in the 1990s. "The decline in student numbers is the result of declining fertility in the 90's. Back then, the main reason for this were economic," said University of Tartu demographer Mare Ainsaar.
But on a positive note, Ainsaar said the birth rate freefall was now over.
"Fertility has slightly increased because living standards have gone up. There are also policies that aim to increase fertility. In my opinion, [the birth rate] will continue to go up, but it will not be as high as it was in the eighties," Ainsaar said.
Factors such as an increase in temporary jobs have created employment uncertainty, the expert said, adding that people were becoming more selective in their reproductive partners.
"The majority of [Estonian residents] do want to have children, but the reality is that every year parents become older, and for different reasons they end up having less children," she added.
This year's low number of enrolling students also gave an indication of employment concerns. The Ministry of Education said there were 15,800 employed in the nation's school system this year, but there was a shortfall of 100 teachers in areas such as language, manual training and science.
With both the birth rate and job shortfalls in mind, the Estonian government has moved to improve fertility and open its borders to more workers. On Aug. 28, the Cabinet approved a plan to increase the number of skilled migrants by simplifying and shortening the visa process.
By 2007, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication expects to release its new criteria to allow specialist workers to move more freely into Estonia.
The Cabinet did not go so far as to fling open Estonia's borders to unskilled migrants, a move the government believes would harm average wages and lead to long-term economic consequences.
"We already have a high share of immigrants, and I don't think Estonian society is so keen to open up to more," Ainsaar said. "We still have negative migration 's more people are leaving than are coming in."
Estonia is not the only nation seeking to attract more skilled workers. Nations across Europe are experiencing a similar population crisis, and some countries are able to offer better wages to capture their required workforce, which is why demographers say the only option for Estonia is to breed its own population.
The Baltic state already offers financial incentives to encourage higher fertility. Parents are given a combined 455 days off work after childbirth, with their previous full wage covered by the government.
The government boasts that this incentive helped increase birth rates, which climbed from 13,000 per year between 1994 and 2003 to 15,000 last year. There are also moves to make more childcare places available, as a shortage currently exists.