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Skills Development in Serbia

Year/Date: 10/10/2017

Serb

Knowledge hubs – platforms that bring together employers, educators and governments – are supporting skills development in Serbia’s fast-growing ICT sector. Senior ministers, EU officials, business leaders, educators and ETF experts have been meeting in Belgrade to discuss how the success of the Vojvodina ICT Cluster can be replicated to address skills shortages in other sectors.

The ETF’s roving reporter Nick Holdsworth explores the collaborative platform that is supporting Serbia’s digital skills drive.

Novi Sad: Serbia’s hotbed of ICT

Milan Solaja, chief executive of Serbia's Vojvodina ICT Cluster, speaks rapid, fluent English that he began learning informally as a boy desperate to understand the lyrics of songs by the Beatles. A tall, slender man who has to remember to duck to avoid hitting hit his on the wooden beams that support the ceiling of the offices of the Novi Sad-based software and computing industry support and training body, he is a passionate advocate for the role that IT businesses can play in supporting Serbia's economic - and educational - development. Putting IT and software at the heart of national development under the slogan Digital Serbia is Milan's vision and one that he is passionate about.

The Vojvodina Cluster - which brings together around 35 companies employing 4,000 people and stakeholders from 11 governmental and educational institutions - aims to give ICT companies a regional, national and global platform; support training initiatives both at its centre and through in-house and dual education programmes; and lobby the government for better policies to support digital industry development.

A not-for-profit business association, it raises around 10-12% of its annual budget through company subscriptions of €100 per month and the rest from projects. In 2016, its budget was around €250,000. Its regional role - in Serbia's largest province that occupies around a quarter of the former Yugoslav republic's territory, but accounts for a third of the country's GDP - is as important as its national and international position.

‘We've always had strong support from ICT companies - ever since we were set up in 2010, based on an industry initiative. They had seen similar organisations overseas and wanted something like that here,’ he says. ‘We saw the need to involve all stakeholders - the industry, government and education - that can contribute to taking advantage of opportunities to develop the digital process. ICT has been the nuclear fuel for everything that we do, but the role of training and policymakers is also essential: a triple helix must be there to achieve the best results.’

A collaborative approach to skills development

Involving stakeholders, working with VET schools and other educational institutes is one of the keys to ensuring that enough software engineers are trained to sustain an industry that often loses its best skilled employees to international firms. Milan mentions a German company that skills tested a Serbian team of IT specialists to design a piece of software it had already had its HQ staff work on. The Serbs did a better job at a better price. Fortunately, in this case, the foreign company did not poach them, but invested in establishing a local office and creating new employment opportunities.

‘Often we have a lack of IT staff in the market and we have had to start pressure education institutions to deliver more.’

Building a creative, sustainable homegrown ICT industry is essential to the future of the sector: the basic model of IT, he says, boils down to outsourcing - where foreign companies sub-contract projects to local firms - or developing your own business models, software, games and other applications.Outsourcing has a low ceiling - a company that has 10 engineers can charge a maximum of ten monthly engineer fees. Develop your own software and the sky's the limit.

‘There were a couple of students here who dropped out of college to develop specialised project management software they could not find on the market,’ Milan says. ‘They put the resulting software on the Internet as open source with a licence priced at $300 - not much by western standards - with support and upgrades included and sold 40,000 copies, making $12 million over two years. Now their company employees a dozen staff.’

Another company that designs HOPA games (Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures) has 450 employees, only a third of whom are engineers - the rest are creative game developers, designers, graphic artists, photographers, visual effects specialists and others, underscoring the importance of the educational component of the 'triple helix'. The ETF developed the education and training part of the Vojvodina ICT Cluster approach, through a needs analysis conducted in 2016.

‘Nobody knows exactly what profiles we need to develop for training and dual education programmes,’ Milan says. ‘Everybody thinks they know. The ETF helped us design a needs analysis and questionnaire that went out to 40 companies. Initial results confirm what we know - but it is useful now to have the facts to push an agenda for dual education in IT training.’

Apart from core engineering skills, the sector also needs to train people in business, marketing, communications and sales, the study found. Milan says many lessons have been learned since the ICT Cluster was set up in 2010.‘We've learned that it is better to give a general [skills] base for trainees, because later on they will specialise. We stopped offering entry level tests online as they are open to cheating.’

Through the Serbian Association of Business Clusters, the organization is also engaged in lobbying the government for better policies. The Torino Process, the ETF's flagship tool for providing evidence-based analysis of VET systems to support policy reform can help support this lobbying effort, Milan adds.A priority in that area, he concludes, is to encourage a more efficient approach to EU structural funds available so support digital training and reform in Serbia: currently only around 15% of which is being drawn down as too few people actually apply for the support.

 

 



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