Young Croat Achieves ”World Skills” Success, But Under Foreign Flag

Lauren Simmonds

As Novac/Matija Boltizar writes on the 10th of November, 2019, Croatia has a world champion in concrete construction. His name is Mateo Grgić, he is just 22 years old, he is a native of Prgomelje, a small town near Bjelovar, and is a carpenter by profession. This talented Croat has experienced great success, but not under the flag of the country of his birth.

This news in itself is amazing owing to a couple of things. First of all, because of something called World Skills, where professionals show off their skills in, well, just about anything.

The first “Olympic Games for occupations” was organised after World War II, and during the last, otherwise the 45th edition, which was held in August in the Russian city of Kazan, featured more than 1,300 competitors from 69 countries.

The second amazing thing, which was referred to in the first sentence of this text, is why almost nobody in all of Croatia knows that for the past two months, the best carpenter in the world is a young Croat. The media space is filled with Croatia’s sporting successes, from those planetary popular sports such as football or tennis, down to less popular ones, or perhaps it’s better to say those with less attention, like taekwondo or shooting. The news of the victories of Croatian computer scientists and students can be found here and there, but why is there no room given to vocational professions? The answer lies in two facts.

Firstly, Mateo jokes that his skills aren’t quite as attractive as Bruno Petković’s talents with a football. Secondly, and more importantly, Mateo, a Croat, performed under the Austrian flag at World Skills. We can also say that this young Croat from near Bjelovar is the Jakov Fak among carpenters, that is, he’s yet another Croat who achieved world success, but under the flag of another country.

Therefore, this story partly tells the problem of the emigration of young Croats who continue to leave the country to head abroad for better opportunities. Not surprisingly, Mateo’s story begins with his passport, as at a mere 14 years old, he left Croatia for Vienna, where his father was already working.

”When I finished elementary school, there was a real crisis going on in Croatia. Everyone was out of work and I was afraid that when I finished high school I would just be going to sign on at the job centre. So I told myself, I’m going to try things out in Austria, and if I don’t succeed, I can always come home,” says Mateo.

He didn’t speak German well, but he still enrolled in the ninth grade and successfully completed it, after which he entered a school for carpenters. He was initially recruited by the Austrian state-owned construction company Porr, who took him on to improve as he continued his education.

Namely, in Austria the practice is such that companies take on students who then learn through doing hands on work, and they get paid immediately for it. Mateo was already earning 700 euros a month at the age of 15, and by the end of the third year, his salary had increased to 1,700 euros per month. Thus, as a high school student, he was earning much more than the average Croatian salary, which was the first thing that brought him closer to Austria and thus even further away from Croatia. After that, things only improved.

The firm paid for him to earn his degree as a manager, making him one of the youngest workers to graduate from that school. He then ran smaller construction sites, and is now assistant manager at the currently largest construction site in Austria. He still returns to Croatia, but only to visit his family or for holidays.

While all of that is quite depressing indeed, it’s time to say a little more about this young Croat’s huge success, which is inevitably a great success for Croatia. Not every country can boast that they bred the best young carpenter on the planet. This year, the honour is shared by two countries.

Mateo performed with Austrian Alexander Krutzler in Kazan in Russia, and they won gold jointly. The two met back in 2016, when they made their first appearance at the World Skills National Championships. They were third then, but two years later the company resubmitted them for the championship. Then they won first place and were as such placed in Russia.

As for World Skills, we referred to it a little earlier on in this article that it’s otherwise the Occupation Olympics, and that title really is justified. Expert workers carried their flags at the opening ceremony, with some 45,000 spectators cheering for them at the packed Kazan Arena, the stadium where Brazil and Belgium played in the quarterfinals of the World Cup last summer. Moreover, if you look at the photos from this year’s World Skills, you will at first think that this is a high-budget concert or sporting competition that has had millions spent on it.

And now what interests us all – what does the competition for concrete construction actually look like?

”You walk into a huge seventy-square-foot hall and you have your own space where you work. You get an assignment and all the competitors do the same thing. For everything we had to do, we had 22 hours that were divided into four days, and when you get up on that stage, you don’t think about anything else but work,” says Mateo.

They had all the tools at their disposal and had to do everything by themselves from scratch. Otherwise, one such job requires between 50 and 60 hours for some extremely valuable and skilled workers. Mateo and Alexander did it all in half the time, with a deviation of only 50 millimetres from the design required.

Before Russia, they had been training for five weeks with a trainer. He said they practiced at +40 degrees in July, building nine and a half tonnes of material each time. They also had a fitness program, their own physical therapist, and mental training, all just like real professional athletes. All this effort eventually resulted in the pair winning a gold medal.

”I’ll never forget the moment when they declared us the winners. I remember, I just heard ”gold”, turned around and saw my name on the screen. Although there were 50,000 people in the stadium, I didn’t see anyone,” Mateo recalls. There followed a celebration and a return to Austria, where they were greeted as if they were Olympic champions. The company organised a celebration, they were received by the mayor of Vienna, and almost all representatives of the Austrian media sought an interview with the best carpenters in the world, one of which was a Croat who had won under their flag.

Job offers came soon after that. Worldwide companies have openly called Mateo, offering him excellently paid work. There were offers from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but he turned them down. He says that his company is doing well, and they have made everything possible for him. When he returned to his native Prgomelje, his family organised a feast for him, because it isn’t every day that a small, continental Croatian village can boast about having ”created” a world champion.

Only one local newspaper and one Catholic media portal reported that Croatia has a new world champion. And, two months later, Jutarnji list also reported on it, although Mateo says he didn’t expect to be the subject of interest of the domestic media. Although he was born a Croat, he, as he himself says, is now Austrian.

”Croatia is my country and nothing would mean more to me than to win gold in its name. And, frankly, I do want to go back home, but first in Croatia, everything has to be the same as in Austria. I’m a Croat, I have Croatian citizenship and I want my children to be Croats, but Austria has allowed me to be everything that I am today. So, while on the one hand I want to go back, on the other I know that it’s impossible. Not until the work is as appreciated as it is here,” says Mateo, who plans to enroll in college to become an engineer next.

”Next year, the European Skills Championships will be held in Graz and I’d like to see Croatian carpenters perform at it. My coach and my company are ready to help Croatia so they can form their own team. We will enable them all so that Croatia can have its representatives in the Championships,” says Mateo.

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