Several key issues such as a shortage of qualified employees, demographic changes and a skills gap have been on the international agenda for a long time. The importance of these issues was noticed by industry, the EU and national authorities. It is reflected in several initiatives launched to promote industry, increase interest of young people in the study of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines, and to improve the quality of education, vocational in particular. Adequately educated, prepared and adapted to market needs labour force is a prerequisite to sustain stable economic development and enter the era of reindustrialisation in Europe.
Fostering adequate access to labour force for the industry is a long-term process which requires a consistent approach. It is vitally important to attract young people to technical professions at as early stage as possible. Emphasis should be placed on efforts to introduce technology to children as a practical and interesting field of activity. Learning through play not only accelerates their absorption of knowledge, but also demonstrates to them the almost endless possibilities offered by science. An illustrative example of activities tailored to specific age groups can be found in the EURO-PARK MIELEC Special Economic Zone, one of the two SEZs managed by the Poland’s Industrial Development Agency, ARP.
An initiative targeted at the youngest children (aged six to 12) to take interest in technology is the Children's University of Technology (CUT). The CUT was founded in Rzeszow as a joint initiative of the Rzeszow University of Technology and Pratt & Whitney Rzeszow. The first lecture at the CUT in Mielec took place in 2013. Since then, the CUT in Mielec has carried out its activities under the auspices of the Foundation for Education Support at the Aviation Valley Association. The project involves conducting classes for children in the form of lectures and laboratories designed in a way that each child can understand as challenging topics as operation of a jet engine. A priority of the CUT is to carry out all activities in a fun and affordable way.
To promote science among older schoolchildren, the Leonardo Youth Academy of Technical Skills has been established. The idea stems from the results of the six editions of the Science & Technology Festival in Mielec. The Leonardo Academy creates conditions for the entry of young people into the world of technology and robotics by developing their abilities and helping them choose a future career. The participants study and learn in practice, for example, by constructing model aircraft and space rockets or by programming robots. Students of the flight course perform virtual flights over Mielec. Young technology enthusiasts listen to interesting lectures on popular science given by experts from the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow. Leonardo is a unique project as such an extensive education offer other than the regular school programmes is still rare.
An ample opportunity for young people to continue their technical education in Mielec is the newly launched Faculty of Manufacturing Engineering at a branch of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow. The faculty offers full- and part-time bachelor programmes in mechanical engineering and construction design and is an excellent starting point for entering a technical career path. Currently, ARP’s ambitious objective is to develop and implement, in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, a model of cooperation in vocational training in Mielec. The basic assumption of the model is to build a platform for the exchange of information between entrepreneurs, schools and educational institutions responsible for vocational training (on skills required by employers as well as apprenticeship and internship opportunities.
This highlights the compelling need for cooperation between public, social and industrial stakeholders in the vocational education process. Industry, local and regional authorities, scientific and educational institutions and business support institutions have to work together to ensure that the training satisfies the needs of employers. A strong example for coordination of cooperation sets the Tarnobrzeg SEZ EURO-PARK WISŁOSAN, the second SEZ managed by ARP. To meet the challenges faced by the industry, the Tarnobrzeg Zone created the Vocational Education Cluster.
The founders of the cluster in addition to the Tarnobrzeg SEZ are the local authorities from the area, the Guild of Craftsmen and Entrepreneurs in Stalowa Wola, the Technology Incubator and the Tarnobrzeg Regional Development Agency. A development plan envisages an enlargement to other sub-zones of the SEZ, including Radom.
The newly established cluster will focus on improving the quality and hence the attractiveness of vocational education. Raising qualifications of teachers and improving access to cutting-edge technology for students and teachers will constitute a core activity of the cluster. It will also serve as a platform of cooperation between employers and vocational training schools. For instance, it will be instrumental in defining specific skill sets that need to be taught in response to industry demand. The cluster will also facilitate the participation of employers in preparing course curricula and organising practical workplace training for pupils and students. This is particularly important in view of the fact that practical apprenticeship is a fundamental and integral part of the education process in vocational schools. Practical classes serve to transfer of skills needed to work in a given profession. Apprenticeships offer chances to apply and deepen knowledge and skills in working conditions; this is the advantage of vocational education over general education.
There is a tremendous need for cooperation between science, education, business, local and regional authorities. Industry has already realised that fighting for the employee begins at an early stage of education. Highly qualified teachers and a well-prepared teaching base is of great importance when it comes to improving the image of industry and attracting young people to technical professions. Therefore, industry is very eager to be included in the various activities that serve this purpose.
The activities set out above will prove helpful in filling the gaps that may occur in the future. They benefit all stakeholders. Companies will benefit from access to graduates prepared to work on specific positions, able to use modern equipment. The schools will know how and in which skills should be provided in order to response market demand. Finally, students and their parents will know in which professions they will be able to find a job.