Interview with Mr. Balsa Culafic, Project Coordinator of the Regional Challenge Fund on behalf of the WB6 CIF

Interview with Mr. Balsa Culafic, Project Coordinator of the Regional Challenge Fund on behalf of the WB6 CIF and Coordinator for Cooperation with International Chamber Associations at Chamber of Economy Montenegro

1. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development commissioned the Regional Challenge Fund (RCF) funds to KfW Development Bank and chose the Western Balkans 6 Chamber Investment Forum (WB6 CIF), a joint initiative of chambers of commerce from the region, as a key executive partner. How important is this initiative for the Western Balkans countries, and how the Regional Challenge Fund contributes to the mission of the WB6-CIF?

The Western Balkans 6 Chamber Investment Forum represents a joint initiative of chambers of commerce and industry from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, representing around 350,000 companies. We are committed to improving the business and investment climate in the markets of the WB region. However, this would be hardly possible without advancing the education and training of learners and professionals and regional efforts supporting the development of this vital field. Fortunately, the Regional Challenge Fund strongly supports implementing policies and measures to increase employability further and reduce unemployment, especially among young people in the Western Balkans 6. It does that by supporting projects jointly implemented by vocational training institutes and partnering enterprises that engage in cooperative training activities. The success of the first call published by the RCF demonstrated its attractivity in the WB6 region. We received 205 applications with more than 600 enterprises ready to work together with vocational education institutions. It was challenging to select the best proposals, but we are close to supporting approximately 20 ambitious initiatives that will change the local level labour market.

2. Why is implementing a cooperative or dual training approach crucial for this region to increase the students’ future employability?
Our region has achieved a lot in attracting foreign investments. However, as our recent study on nearshoring potentials showed, the central role is given to operational institutions, good infrastructure, and a qualified labour force when deciding on investments. The cooperative or dual training approach affects employability in Western European countries positively. We believe that this approach that brings together vocational education providers and enterprises can successfully overcome skills mismatch and bridge the gap between supply from education and employers` demand. Hence, our chambers of commerce are devoted to the promotion and implementation of the CT approach in line with national education strategies.

3. What are the challenges that participating enterprises and businesses in the cooperative training are facing? What action steps and good practices can be applied to implement a cooperative training approach successfully?

Many great projects are introducing or mainstreaming cooperative or dual education approach around the region despite some challenges. However, we sometimes see that lack of a legal framework that regulates the cooperation among two learning venues and the initial costs are the main reasons some enterprises are still hesitant about the CT approach. In addition, during the last year, it was complicated to organize in-company training due to epidemiological measures for preventing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Educational authorities are working together with business representatives on identifying the models for adjusting cooperative training or work-based learning to the current educational systems. On the other hand, mechanisms such as the RCF and the initiatives run by other international organizations aim to further build capacities among the VET stakeholders, especially focusing on building resilience to adapt to the changes brought by the pandemics.

4. A cooperative or dual training approach involves the business sector throughout the entire process of VET development, implementation, and assessment. What are the best ways to motivate enterprises to be a part of this process? What are the Benefits of Cooperative Training for Enterprises?

We saw that many enterprises have agreed to join the consortia with vocational education providers and apply for RCF support. I must say that this was a very positive achievement, keeping in mind that the enterprises cannot receive direct financial support through this funding mechanism focused primarily on the educational institutions. The crucial benefits are that cooperation with the education providers increases their productivity, competitiveness, and innovativeness. Trainees acquire the right skills combining theoretical learning and practical on-the-job training, which inevitably reduces recruitment, onboarding, and training costs on the side of the enterprises. In addition, the upgrade of in-company trainer’s mentoring skills contributes to capacity building within the enterprise. Furthermore, students may bring companies fresh perspectives and make it easier to realize innovative solutions, especially in service-oriented industries.

5. How do you see the future of cooperative training in the Western Balkans 6?
We foster the vision of vocational education and training that is relevant, inclusive, and implemented following good quality standards. Moreover, in line with the European Green Deal, EU Council Recommendations on VET, and Sofia Declaration, we support educational reforms moving toward digitization and green vocational education and training. Work-based learning has an essential part to play in the future, having in mind the rapid changes in the market. Enhanced regional integration and the harmonization of CT approaches between the WB6 countries substantially support our vision.

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