AN EDUCATED labour force is one of the most precious assets a company has. Firms in Slovakia, which until the crisis struck with full force were loudly complaining about a shortage of qualified labour, are well aware of this. In order to have a pool from which to select workers able to meet their requirements, companies have started to establish relationships in the education system, work on scientific and research projects with schools, and support students either by granting awards and scholarships, or in other ways.
The opinions of Slovak companies regarding the quality of graduates from Slovak schools vary according to the segments in which the companies operate. While IT companies are quite satisfied with the knowledge with which Slovak students leave schools, partly because they are already deeply involved in the educational process, telecommunications operators are less satisfied, as it is very difficult for schools to incorporate into their study programmes the latest technological trends, given the speed and frequency with which they change. Carmakers are also less satisfied because their employees have to work with the latest technologies, which are not available in schools. The banking sector is happy with the theoretical knowledge of graduates, but says it would welcome more practical experience as well as so-called soft skills such as communications and presentation skills, and assertiveness.
“To evaluate the interconnection of academia with business is possible only on the basis of assessing the engagement of employers in academic education,” Marián Lakatoš, the assistant manager at Kia Motors Slovakia’s HR department, told The Slovak Spectator. “It is impossible to expect from educational institutions that without the active participation and cooperation of employers they will on their own be able to prepare graduates with sufficient practical experience.”
Companies agree that the situation has changed as many of them have recognised the need to actively participate in the educational process by supplying the latest technologies, equipment or experts in order to get from schools graduates who have knowledge at the required level.
“The situation in terms of preparing students for praxis in Slovakia has changed very much during the last few years,” Carmen Čapkovič, spokesperson for IBM Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator.
“Much more often we are witnessing successful cooperation between academia and companies.”
Some companies allow academic institutions access to the information needed to teach the latest technologies. Others come up with themes for bachelors’, masters’ and PhD theses which could bring them tangible and useful results. Another way in which academia and business are becoming interconnected is through various trainee programmes for students or internships for graduates.
Apart from students, companies also prepare events for teachers.
“Microsoft carries out several activities, whose goal is to bring into the educational process the latest technologies and results of development,” Roman Russev, academic developer evangelist at Microsoft Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator, adding that in the IT sector the cycle of innovations is about three years long and that keeping pace with technologies is a very demanding process. “These activities are directed towards universities and their teachers, as well as students. Teachers have an opportunity to join communities, and have access to information resources which enable them to quickly and effectively absorb new technologies. For students, there is the biggest world-wide students’ technological competition, ImagineCup, specialised lectures, as well as online e-learning programmes.”
Last year Slovak Telekom for the first time held a conference about the latest trends in information and communication technologies for technical secondary-school teachers, Anna Hudáková, the company’s executive vice-president for HR, told The Slovak Spectator. As this event met with a positive response from teachers the company will continue to organise it in the future.
For students, Slovak Telekom holds the Telekom Day conference, where they can get in touch with the latest technologies and take part in case studies direct from real life. “Allowing students to meet experts offers a unique opportunity to confront academic knowledge with experience from praxis and debate novel technologies with experts from Slovak Telekom and T-Mobile,” said Hudáková.
But, as Lakatoš of Kia told The Slovak Spectator, for a more effective interconnection of academia and business, and for more active engagement of employers in this process, it is necessary to prepare a legislative background which would motivate employers to participate. “Thus we acknowledge the efforts of the Ministry of Education to adopt a law on specialised education and specialised preparation, which will clearly define the tasks of the state, regional governments, educational institutions, employers as well as employees,” said Lakatoš.
Companies help to educate expert workers
Since businesses report a deficit of potential employees with special qualifications, they have become directly involved in the educational process in order to help universities as well as secondary schools prepare students who can fill their vacancies. Moreover, it remains a challenge for companies to make study at technical universities more attractive to secondary-school students.
Slovenské Elektrárne (SE) and the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava are together establishing a new accredited study field focused on the energy sector that will generate graduates who are prepared to meet the requirements of the energy sector. And Slovnaft, also in cooperation with STU, has initiated a new subject – optimisation in the oil industry - taught by experts from the refinery, Slovnaft spokesperson Anton Molnár told the Spectator.
Other companies bring experts to universities, who through their lectures help prepare students for real work in companies.
“By securing lectures by qualified European specialists with long experience, SPP is pursuing its long-term intention to provide to university students the best possible platform for interconnection of theory and praxis,” Viera Ottová, the director of SPP’s HR division, told The Slovak Spectator.
Companies, like Slovnaft and SE as well as Slovenská Sporiteľňa, also offer awards for the best bachelors’, masters’ and PhD theses. SE last year launched the Aurel Stodola award for the energy sector, through which SE awards financial prizes for the best theses. SE also funds scholarships for talented students to pursue studies at technical universities corresponding to the needs of the energy sector and its development.
Science and research
Another way to interconnect business and academia is through science and research. Many companies in Slovakia have joined forces with top university experts to solve real-life problems, or to exchange knowledge and information. They have established joint working places and together solve scientific and technical problems faced by companies.
An example of such cooperation is the Institute of Next Generation Networks established by Slovak Telekom and Žilina University in 2006. Its main goal is the transfer of information and knowledge between business and the academic community in the field of modern network and information-communication technologies, as well as theoretical and practical preparation of students, graduates and teachers to apply the ideas and principles of the information society and knowledge-based economy.
Another centre, the first Innovation Centre which Microsoft is going to open in Slovakia, is intended to support cooperation between the academic sector and praxis.
“It will be at the Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica and will be devoted to and specialise in questions and issues linked to business intelligence,” said Microsoft Slovakia’s Russev.