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Dr Harald Mahrer, President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber

Our Partnership is Strong & Fruitful

Chambers of commerce play a crucial role in helping businesses adapt to the new demands of the market economy. The Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and its Serbian counterpart are cooperating successfully to help domestic companies find a well-trained workforce and address challenges stemming from the digital revolution

The Austrian and Serbian chambers of commerce are longstanding partners that cooperate closely in many aspects.

We spoke with the President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and the President of the National Bank of Austria, Dr Harald Mahrer, about the new trends in dual education and the informal education of workers that have been gradually introduced to the Serbian education system, as well as the changes companies must address if they want to cope with Industrial Revolution 4.0., which is rapidly changing the landscape of the economy globally.

In which way does the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber participate in the shaping of educational programmes and profiles in Austria?

– Education is the essential factor in successfully securing a skilled workforce. It is, therefore, a key area for the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, which is the second largest provider of education and training in Austria. With its schools, universities and adult training courses, the chamber offers a variety of company-orientated and practice-orientated education and training programmes.

With regard to the dual vocational training system, the Austrian Economic Chamber plays a crucial role in the development of occupational profiles and ensures the private sector’s close involvement. Together with other social partners, the Economic Chamber is a key player in shaping the content and scope of the dual vocational training system: the occupational profiles are defined by the social partners and form the basis for the part-time vocational schools’ curricula.

Another important task is to provide support services for companies that train apprentices at the local level. The Chamber’s regional apprenticeship offices are the point of contact for all of these companies in terms of administration, subsidies and support services.

Which recommendations could you offer your colleagues from the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia (CCIS)?

– First of all, my congratulations to Serbia! The ongoing reform process of vocational education and training and the introduction of dual vocational training is being managed very efficiently and at a considerable speed. 

I’m convinced that this reform will establish a solid basis for improved economic development and enhance the attractiveness of vocational education and training.

The Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia has taken responsibility for crucial tasks in the implementation of the legal framework for dual vocational training. Its role as an intermediary is very helpful in supporting companies. The chamber has a strong role towards the education sector and tries to ensure that the occupational profiles and curricula meet the needs of the business sector and the economy. It is very important to tackle the current skills mismatch that leads to a lack of skilled labour and – at the same time – a high rate of youth unemployment.

Furthermore, I fully endorse the idea of establishing a business academy, an adult training provider of the chamber offering tailor-made training for employees.

An innovative and attractive provision of training, from initial training to life-long training, clearly contributes to a strong and competitive economy.

In which specific ways will you support the further development of dual education in Serbia?

– The Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and the CCIS have enjoyed a close partnership for many years. In terms of dual vocational training, we embarked on a cooperation project in 2016, with the help of Austrian development cooperation. More specifically, our main objectives are capacity building of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the development of new occupational profiles, and effective support of training companies.

I want to congratulate our partners in Serbia for the efficient introduction of vocational education. I am convinced that it will establish a solid basis for improved economic development

Introducing dual vocational training systematically is a highly demanding task. The law on dual VET will be effective as of September 2019. During the current transition period, we are supporting the CCIS in building up its full capacities as an intermediary institution, establishing digital support services and an effective administration. This is the opportunity to create attractive educational pathways for young people, as well as business-friendly framework conditions patterned along very practical needs. We are involved in two pilot projects dealing with the occupational profiles “trader” and “freight forwarder”. Despite the challenges, the initial results and feedback are extremely satisfying.

In the coming years, we will focus on innovative apprenticeships in digitalisation. CCIS President Marko Čadež is a strong partner in all respects. Apart from the multiannual cooperation in dual vocational training, we are also collaborating in the field of services for SMEs in digitalisation.

Given that the CCIS established – based on the model of your Chamber – a Business Academy (WIFI) that supports the informal education of workers, can you tell us something more about the role of these forms of education when it comes to strengthening the competencies of the workforce?

– Our chambers’ WIFI-Network is a modern and future-orientated service institution in vocational education and training that supports Austria’s economy.

Our task is to provide success- and performance- orientated individuals with the opportunities that allow them to obtain the kind of substantiated, global, tried & tested knowledge needed to meet the social, economic and occupational challenges of tomorrow. To achieve this, WIFI cultivates constant exchanges with entrepreneurs and human resource managers.

Based on this permanent feedback governing the economic process as well as the labour- and occupational markets, we continuously develop innovative educational products that are consistent with the economy’s ever-changing demand. Around 20 per cent of the annual WIFI offer consists of newly-developed programmes.

There is growing interest among small companies from Austria to find Serbian partners for joint projects, due both to the overall lack of highly qualified labour in most of Europe and the pro-European stance of Serbian decision-makers

WIFI is the springboard for new training methods, innovations and SME programmes. It offers innovative educational products that are demanded by the markets in eight business segments: management/corporate governance, personal development, languages, business administration, data processing/ IT, engineering, specific industries and vocational matriculation examinations/private schools.

According to WIFI’s leading principle “from practice – to practice”, the courses are conducted by 12,000 freelance trainers. Conducting training as a part-time activity is a key WIFI requirement in international practice to ensure the practise-orientation of the training courses and to secure the direct transfer of knowledge and competencies to the job, as well as the company. Many of the trainers are entrepreneurs, professional company experts or specialist consultants.

How can knowledge acquired in such a way be used in the case of employment in other countries? To what extent are these diplomas awarded by chambers recognised in other education systems?

– In Austria, like in many other countries, adult education and continued vocational training outside of the school or university system are ‘non-formal’. Therefore, the reputation of the training provider is essential. Over 70 years, the WIFI has in Austria gained a reputation for the very high quality and practice-orientation of its courses. A WIFI-certificate is recognised and valued by Austrian companies.

In the future, the Austrian National Qualification Framework (NQF), based on the European Qualification Framework (EQF), will serve as an instrument for mapping qualifications – for schools and universities, as well as for non-formal courses in adult/continued vocational training. The aims are to provide a transparency tool to facilitate the orientation within an education and training system, and to support the comparability and comprehensibility of qualifications in Europe.

Across Europe there are different, historically evolved, education systems. But there is also a vast variety of qualifications. As mobility increases – during training periods or within a working life – there is a desire for greater clarity and better comparability. The European Commission has recommended the EU-Member States develop national qualification frameworks. Each member state implements its own qualification framework and allocates national qualifications to a specific level based on respective learning outcomes regardless of the area of education. The Austrian Qualification Framework is currently being implemented. It will ultimately map all qualifications, regardless of the education areas (from vocational education to tertiary education, as well as continuous vocational training qualifications obtained in the education & training sector).

In your opinion, what is the most important thing to be done to develop the know-how of workers in accordance with the needs of the accelerated digitalisation of the economy?

– There is a critical shortage of suitably skilled ICT professionals and job-related digital skills in the workforce as a whole, as well as a lack of general digital competences among the wider population.

The skills gap is a major policy concern. According to the 2017 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), 44% of people in the EU have very low digital skills, while 27% have only basic digital skills. Young people are quick to become consumers of new technology. However, in many cases, they lack the skills to master this technology and use it in a reflected or creative way. (In 2017, Austria ranked 10th in the DESI, unchanged from the year before. It has made progress in line with the EU average in most dimensions. In digital public services, where Austria scores particularly well, it is now among Europe’s top five).

Connectivity and the Internet of Things will soon be pervasive. We need to prepare our workforce for the changes this will bring. A good example is the “Coder”, a brand-new apprenticeship, starting in Austria in September 2019

Tackling the digital skills gap and boosting digital competences is a goal that concerns society as a whole. Therefore, a broad partnership of stakeholders is essential. A collaboration of stakeholders can help build bridges – for example, between formal and non-formal education, work and education.

At the European level, the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition brings together the EU Member States, companies, social partners, non-profit organisations and education providers who take action to tackle the lack of digital skills in Europe. Digital skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork, critical thinking and the ability to learn will also be paramount in the changing labour market.

Four emerging technologies will be vital in the future:

• Data – better use of data for decision-making will be a challenge: this requires data science skills based on a good mathematical underpinning and computational thinking.

• Connectivity and the Internet of Things will soon be pervasive. We need to prepare our workforce for the changes this will bring.

• Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning (AI/ML): humans will benefit from decision support from AI/ML, but will need to understand the psychological and ethical background to complement software and digital skills.

• Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: We have to make use of immersive learning and simulated learning to enhance and change vocational education and training. A new generation of organisational concepts and work skills is coming from fields such as game design, neuroscience and happiness psychology. These fields will drive the creation of new training paradigms and tools. Workers in the future will need to be adaptable, lifelong learners!

Do you expect dual education to undergo certain changes in order to be able to change at the pace required by the emergence of artificial intelligence and robotics?

– Digitalisation triggers a total change of job profiles and will require brand-new ones. The key factor for the success of dual vocational training is the mechanism to permanently update and develop occupations and curricula to meet the needs of the economy. In this respect, we are currently updating more than 200 occupational profiles, taking into consideration digitalisation. A good example is the “Coder”, a brand new apprenticeship, starting in Austria in September 2019.

Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance to set up new learning methodologies and training content.

What does digital transformation imply at the level of enterprises and what should it bring to entrepreneurs?

– Digitisation is turning the business world upside down. It concerns all sectors and branches of the economy and all types of enterprises, whether they are big, medium-sized or small. No company can afford to let the trend of digitisation pass them by. Digitisation trends offer great potential and new business opportunities for entrepreneurs and their companies.

In order to help companies in Austria master their digital transformations and take advantage of opportunities, the Austrian Economic Chambers have adopted a proactive approach.

For example, in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs, we set up the digitisation programme SME DIGITAL, providing comprehensive support for these opportunities, specifically for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

How do Austrian investors in Serbia assess the investment climate; what kinds of trends have you observed?

– We know from our latest survey and our daily contacts with companies both in Austria and here in Serbia that their outlook for their future business in Serbia has improved markedly over the last few years. The business community has very warmly welcomed some recent legal and administrative reforms. But there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to the rule of law and the transparency and length of procedures.

On a more general level, the firm commitment of the Serbian Government to follow the EU path definitely reinforces trust and confidence in the future on the part of our business community. What we see presently is growing interest among small companies from Austria to find Serbian partners for joint projects or even to invest in the country. This trend is obviously driven, on the one hand, by the overall lack of highly qualified labour in most of Europe, but also by the pro-European stance of Serbian decision-makers.

Let me also add another observation: much of this new interest is generated by members of the Serbian Community in Austria, whether they are successful business owners or professionals. By sharing their knowledge and experience through their personal channels, they play an important role in encouraging others to come and look into the opportunities that Serbia offers.