Poland: Anna Świebocka-Nerkowska

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Anna Świebocka-Nerkowska - Director of Human Resources Development Unit, Polish Agency for Enterprise Development (PARP)

The purpose of the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development (PARP) is to support entrepreneurship through the implementation of activities aimed at using innovative solutions by entrepreneurs, development of human resources, the expansion of international markets and regional development. Anna Świebocka-Nerkowska's work at the agency is focused on developing and stimulating enterprising attitudes and behaviours through vocational education.

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Understanding the Educational Needs of Industry

Our interview begins with Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska explaining that understanding and addressing the gap between employers and education is the focus of her work at PARP. She describes an on-going tracking study initiated by PARP looking at 'human capital' in this context - asking employers exactly what they need from their people: "We analysed the whole market... asking enterprises what they have now (in terms of skills, qualifications and competencies) and what they really need from their people moving forward - this covered skills, attitudes and behaviours."

She points out that this is vital work, as what employers say they want in job descriptions/advertisements for positions often doesn't match what they say in person. Additionally, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska points out that small business managers in particular often don't fully understand their own needs, making the job of analysing - and then addressing - these needs at a macro level very difficult.

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Defining the Gap between Enterprise and Education

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska goes on to outline how - as in every country visited during the Effective Education for Employment research programme - soft skills such as communication and teamwork are needed more and more in the Polish economy. She believes, however, that this need is not being adequately addressed in schools and colleges, and that outdated pedagogical models are hindering potential progress heralded by the introduction of technology in the classroom: "Soft
skills are not considered... we learn by rote, based on an old formula of education which is still in place, even if we are now using PCs in the classroom."

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska makes the argument that as more and more work is performed in a collaborative group environment, cooperation and associated skills need to be embedded into the learning experience. She makes it quite clear that whilst some schools are adapting to new paradigms of learning and working, it is the lack of focus on preparing individuals for the workplace that is responsible for this situation: "It should be education for employment, but quite simply, it's not. In Poland education is for education - not for employment."

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Core Competencies for the 21st Century

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska then defines a set of core competencies which she believes are essential for meeting the demands of the rapidly changing Polish workplace:

Cooperation and team work
People will still need to work as individuals, but finding a role within a group, performing as a group member is a basic skill now for many jobs.

Adaptability to change
As human beings we like stability, but the only thing that is stable now is permanent change.

Communication
You need to be able to communicate your needs, your ideas and you need to be able to network with other people. For me this is absolutely crucial.

Whilst recognising the value of innovation and creativity, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska believes that an innovative mindset is engendered by theculture of a business or organisation: "This is about creating the right environment...if you are too strict with procedures innovation doesn't happen. In this respect we (the Polish) have an advantage as we are not a very procedural nation - the Communist political system forced flexibility as part of survival!"

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Measuring Skills and Competencies – A Lack of Comparative Frameworks

We then move on to a discussion around the measurement of skills and competencies, and how the controversial subject of certifying individuals' abilities in terms of communication and teamwork might be addressed in Poland.

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska explains that the European Qualification Framework has not been adopted by Poland, and that there is no comprehensive comparative framework for vocational education. She argues that, in effect, it is therefore impossible to usefully measure qualifications across different sectors, let alone make comparisons with other countries in the EU - a serious problem for those looking to transfer skills and experience in the context of life-long learning.

Regarding soft skills, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska feels that competencies including communication and managerial skills are difficult to measure or certify in isolation, but that they could be assessed alongside 'hard' skills, by looking at how people perform on the job. She believes this approach would be beneficial to the country as a whole, as it would help individuals build a broad portfolio of transferable skills that could be built on as careers develop and progress: "This type of measurement
would help Polish workers to build a full life-long learning portfolio... We now have those with hard skills - plumbers, for example - assessed and certified, but we need to know how to combine that with the competencies we know are so important for all jobs now."

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Education and Entrepreneurship

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska goes on to explain how entrepreneurship is now explicitly taught in schools in Poland - a progressive and even unique situation previously unheard of in our global study of Effective
Education for Employment.

Whilst she recognises that the teaching of entrepreneurship as a stand-alone subject in schools is a positive thing, Mrs Świebocka- Nerkowska notes that it is invariably taught using theoretical models, and often based on a study of business management skills: "For me, this is unfortunate. I believe that understanding and learning about entrepreneurship is about behaviour and attitudes. It's about being an active person, looking for new challenges and being open."

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Encouraging the Polish Entrepreneurial Spirit

Interestingly, recent research in Poland has shown that 30-35% of young people say they would like to manage their own company, and many people in Poland already run one person or micro businesses.

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska believes that Poland's entrepreneurial spirit is evidenced in these statistics, but is concerned that there are some significant barriers around encouraging entrepreneurship in Poland. She believes the main problem can be put down to the status of business people and entrepreneurs in general: "Entrepreneurs are often treated with suspicion in Poland... When someone has much more money than you it is often assumed it was got in an illegal way."

She describes this suspicion as symptomatic of a low level of social capital, a situation exacerbated by the state's apparent suspicion of business people in recent years: "They (administration and parts of society) regard entrepreneurs as thieves. We have a lot of well known business people who have been destroyed by the tax office. This way of thinking is very deep in our minds, and is due to our previous political system and low social capital - in Poland we don't trust each other."

In light of this, a large scale campaign by one of Poland's national newspapers is now underway to change perceptions of entrepreneurs, and PARP itself is also orchestrating a campaign in 2011 to challenge popular misconceptions about entrepreneurs and encourage those already in business to grow their enterprises and so create employment opportunities across the country.

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The Role of Business in Education

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska is absolutely clear that business and industry need to have a significant role in communicating their skills requirements if Poland is to continue on its upward trajectory. She cites several examples of how large Polish companies with the investment of international/foreign capital have been proactive in building connections between employers and the education sector. These companies include the ArcellorMittal steel company, TP S.A. (Polish Telecom owned by France Telecom) and Vattenfall. ArcellorMittal has identified that they will be facing a lack of suitably qualified engineers within 10 years and have started to define their needs and form partnerships with Universities to help address the impending skills gap.

Another example can be seen with Toyota, which has identified problems with a lack of fully qualified graduates which will adversely affect the capacity of their Polish workforce if unchecked.

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska outlines how companies such as Toyota are now talking directly to schools (at local level) and providing direct funding for equipment to help address the problem - another example of progressive activity in the Polish education sector: "In Poland many BPO projects are active on the basis of young, well-educated Polish students and young people. BPO companies (e.g. Infosys BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) from Łódź) take part in the Business Council whichis organized at the management faculty level in University of Łódź (this kind of councils are organized in most of Polish good higher education institutions or faculties), where they can influence a direction of the education program. This again can be done by companies which are aware of the importance of this kind of activity and are interested in the adaptation of the education formula to its needs. On the other hand, secondary schools and higher education institutions will talk to the
companies which are important players on the local or regional labour market."

Although these examples are inspiring, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska points out that only the biggest companies and those with considerable resources at their disposal have the opportunity to directly influence the direction and outcomes of education in this way.

She is also aware that a danger exists in that companies are currently only looking to influence education design in their own sector and at local level, and are not, to her knowledge, lobbying Government for fundamental educational reform.

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Education Reform in Poland

Although the National Qualification Framework in Poland is in the process of being implemented, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska is concerned that this is not being done in partnership with companies. She also points out that there is no infrastructure in place to facilitate dialogue between business and education and no solid research base that could lead to a strategy to addressing the issue: "Business representatives are not very active or, on the whole, involved with education design in Poland...There are no strategic conversations happening about this issue and this really is a problem."

When asked how she would approach educational reform in Poland, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska sees evidence-based policy as the starting point. She states that this must be built around analysis of every level of education in order to build a new strategic framework based on the needs of business.

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Vocational Education – The Status Problem

In spite of the value of vocational education evidenced by Poland's high levels of skilled workers and the economic migration of Polish workers to other parts of the EU, vocational training and education is still seen as lower status in relation to academic study: "I can't understand why this is the case. The biggest unemployment rates are with people who have a lack of education, but those with vocational qualifications are employed. Vocational training and education is needed and needed more and more
in Poland."

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska details how in recent years Poland has closed many vocational schools under a national reform scheme which introduced 'gymnasium' in place of vocational schools and technical colleges. She believes that this has directly resulted in an increase in a skills shortage in key sectors: "We have a lack of people able to enter the labour market with those levels of skills... For example those working in restaurants, hotels, construction... Come on - you don't have to go to a
university to be a plumber."

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The Ideal Experience of Education

Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska then outlines her personal vision of the ideal education system - a description of what learning could be like for children.

She states that if a child's experience is to be ideal, it needs to start at the earliest level possible: kindergarten. Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska feels the focus should be shifted away from traditional, individual activities such as colouring and preparing children for writing towards more group-based activities that develop social and communication skills.

Secondly, she argues that students in primary school should be taught skills of analytical thinking and problem solving (both independently and in groups) though the use of simulations and games: "Practical learning is everything - not learning by memory. Now we have the internet, we can present problems to students, give them data and let them solve problems individually and in groups... And we can monitor them as they are doing this."

Finally, Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska explains that at secondary school and higher education level students should be given as much real life, workplace-based educational opportunities as possible through internships and activities that simulate working life: "When I was studying I wasn't given any practical experience.. and today you have people attending construction college who have not even been on a building site - to me this is a sick situation."

We finish the interview with Mrs Świebocka-Nerkowska's vision for education for employment in Poland - a strong, simple message that she delivers with passion and clarity: "I would start with a strategy and base that strategy on evidence. I am afraid we don't know what we are aiming for or where we are going. A strategy is being built for higher education institutions now, but when you look at that you will not find a word about what happens after you leave education - not a single word about how to find a job and what you do when you start work.

Put simply, I would focus on a strategy based on business needs."

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