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Fabian Gems, Deputy Head of Advantage Austria

Partner for Change

Having a young, skilled workforce is in the best interests of Serbia. Advantage Austria is collaborating with key Serbian stakeholders in supporting, connecting and developing job profiles and curricula in the best interests of everybody – ministries, companies and especially young people in Serbia

Within a year, the signatories of the Memorandum of Understanding – the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the Austrian Federal Foreign Ministry, the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber – achieved a lot in introducing functional dual education to Serbia, says Fabian Gems, Deputy Head of ADVANTAGE AUSTRIA.

What is the role of Advantage Austria in the ongoing reform of vocational education in Serbia?

Put simply: Support, Connect and Develop. We see ourselves as a partner in these three key areas. First and foremost, we support our Austrian companies within the territory of Serbia through coaching and workshops in order to clearly define their needs within the labour market.

We also connect all stakeholders, namely companies, ministries, schools and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, in order to enable a vibrant and positive exchange of information and workflow.

Lastly, with the help of experts from the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, we develop, together with the respective partners in Serbia, job profiles and curricula that are in the best interest of all stakeholders: ministries, companies, and especially young people in Serbia.

What is the role of chambers of commerce in shaping the offer of educational profiles and matching them with demand coming from companies?

Firstly, it is important to see why the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, together with the Ministry of Education and the schools, has such an important role to play in shaping the offer according to the needs of companies. If the subjects and practice taught at school is not up to date with what is needed in our fast-moving economy, students from a trade or technical schools are not equipped with the skills and traits required to be successful in the workplace.

Thus, students become frustrated and tend to choose other schools, leaving a gap in the skilled workforce needed in Serbia. On the other side, companies are less likely to take in students under these conditions.

As such, the most important role of the chambers is to have an open ear for companies and to act when there is a supply and demand gap in skilled workers.

To what extent are Austrian companies in Serbia involved in dual education?

We officially started our project last February, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the Austrian Federal Foreign Ministry, the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber. So far we have accomplished quite a lot: we “dualised” one job profile (trader), and are in the process of introducing two new profiles (haulier, mechatronic worker).

Overall, we have around 20 Austrian companies involved at the moment, with more companies set to participate once we put the finishing touches to the new job profiles. Moreover, as it is not a closed system, we are happy to have also found partners in Serbian and international companies. But the interest is much bigger – so we hope to continue this project with our Austrian subsidiaries and domestic partners for the foreseeable future.

What experience do these companies have with Serbian workers coming from schools with dual education?

If you mean what experience Austrian companies in Serbia have with students training under this new project, I am afraid I cannot yet make any assessment, because the company-based training does not start until this coming February. However, in the meantime, we are preparing companies thoroughly for the start of the training of adolescents.

We organise, for example, very successful ‘train the trainer’ workshops jointly for future mentors within companies and school teachers – definitely a “premiere” in Serbia, where this kind of cooperation and exchange of ideas between the business and educational worlds has no or little precedent.

There are some objections to the introduction of VET in Serbian schools, as it is seen as an additional subsidy to foreign investors in Serbia coming from the pockets of Serbian taxpayers, instead of the funds of these companies. How would you comment on that?

I am afraid there is a misunderstanding in place – which I gladly address. Companies invest in students, training machines and employees becoming mentors, and also allow students to make some money on top of the knowledge and skills they receive. Also, as mentioned, we very much welcome domestic Serbian companies to participate in this project.

Take our job profile “trgovac” (trader) for example. In Delhaize and Univerexport we found strong companies with similar needs to VIP Mobile and DM: having young, skilled workers within their shops in Novi Sad, Belgrade and elsewhere.

The interest in dual education and qualified young workers is rising continuously. We hope to continue our project with our Austrian subsidiaries and domestic partners for the foreseeable future

The grain of truth within the objection is the following: investors, from Austria, Germany, Switzerland or elsewhere, take a close look at a location before investing. One of the most important questions companies face is the availability of skilled labour.

I strongly believe that having a young, skilled workforce is in the best interests of any country. As Marko Čadež, President of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia, put it at one of our recent meetings: Serbia, like many other neighbouring countries, is in heavy competition for the brightest minds – why not develop them yourselves?

Are you considering the establishment of the kind of Austrian training centres that have been established in some other countries where there are a number of Austrian companies?

Austrian training centres can certainly provide added value in some cases, for example for the construction industry during the winter months. Within the existing plan, we do not intend to invest in an Austrian training centre, as we believe strongly in the importance of a close relationship between students and companies. This is the only way companies and their students can build up relationships and students create a company’s DNA, which is vital for the future employment of students.

What is the role of the HR profession in ensuring that employees have up-to-date knowledge?

Human resources are an invaluable part of every organisation and company. That starts from recruitment to the short- and long-term development of soft and hard skills. The experience we have had so far within and outside of our project is clear: companies know exactly what their needs and requirements are, and where they need to be in five years. We hope to contribute to their success and encourage as many students as possible to choose skilled workers’ career paths in providing attractive dual education profiles.