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‘The labour markets need more workers than we can produce’: vocational education delivering jobs in Croatia

Like many other IT professionals living in Zagreb, 23-year-old Matija Kolarić is an ambitious and industrious young man. Currently working as a Senior DevOps Engineer at Q Agency Ltd, a software design agency, he also runs his own software development company and, in his spare time, works as an assistant at a local college.

Kolarić has a passion for solving problems.

“I am currently developing a platform for diabetics,” he says. “I’m developing a tool that uses artificial intelligence to help people manage the disease. For example, users of the application are required to enter as many values as possible into the system, and the system generates suggestions on how to treat the disease. My desire is to develop the tool to the point where I can release a production version.”

With all his talk of software development methodologies, data science, and artificial intelligence, you'd be forgiven for thinking Kolarić initially entered the profession from a purely academic position. Instead, he chose a more vocational route, initially attending the Competence Centre, a Vocational Education and Training school in Koprivnica-Križevci County, some 90 km from Zagreb.

It was an experience that Kolarić very much enjoyed and which led him to continue his education in an academic setting before building a varied and rewarding career.

Kolarić explains that many of his peers at high school failed to see the opportunity in vocational education and, as a result, have not seen similar benefits.

“Unfortunately, many of my colleagues gave up further education after high school,” says Kolarić.

Learning to value education

His friends’ experience isn't unusual in Croatia. When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, only 24% of Croatians aged 30-34 had a tertiary-level qualification, compared to 36% at the EU level and the European target of 40% by 2020. The trend, however, was on an upward trajectory, up from just 16% ten years earlier.

For those students who dropped out of education, Kolarić has some rather philosophical advice.

“The goal is not to complete a college education so that we can find a better job,” he says. “The idea is not to focus on the goal. The idea is to focus on the path we take to reach the goal. Enjoying the journey will allow us to expand our horizons and allow ourselves to see much further than the set goal as we mature. That's how I find new motivation to be better at what I do.”

Vocational education and training success

According to Saša Seretin, a lecturer in electrical engineering at the Competence Centre, Kolarić's success is not unusual.

"We have four-year programmes in the field of electrical engineering and computer science and three-year programmes in hospitality, mechanical engineering, construction, and food production," says Seretin. “Around 90% of students who complete the four-year programmes go on to college, and the students who complete the three-year programmes go directly to the labour market."

Students typically have no problem finding good employment opportunities in the local area.

"Five years ago, it was very different," says Seretin, "But things have changed in the past two or three years. If they finish craft school today and don't want to go to college, they will be working for a local company tomorrow. The labour markets need more workers than we can produce in our schools."

The strength of the local labour market is reflected in a steep decline in unemployment. Unemployment in Croatia currently stands at 6.3%, just above the EU average rate of 6%, but dramatically down from a high of 17.3% in 2014.

Seretin explains that there is great demand for skilled workers in the region's food production, chemical, and automobile industries.

Promoting VET

"The Competence Centre works closely with local industry to ensure they provide the very best education to their students and equip them for the modern workplace," says Seretin.

While funding is an issue across education, Seretin is proud of the Centre's achievements in building a 2,000-square-metre facility with state-of-the-art equipment and technology.

According to Seretin, the biggest challenge in modern vocational education and training is persuading elementary school students to consider VET a step in the right direction.

“We have to introduce our school in elementary schools,” says Seretin. “We do this all year, every year. It's a challenge, especially in areas like electronics and computer science. But we are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make Vocational Education and Training a big success for the country.”

The European Union supports Member States in making their VET systems fit for the green transition. In the construction sector alone, for example, the European Green Deal is expected to create up to 487,000 new jobs in the EU by 2030. Out of these, almost 70% will be created for skilled manual and non-manual workers, who typically have a vocational education and training background.

EU member states can make use of EU funds to invest in reskilling and upskilling of the workforce, in addition to initial education and training.  For example, the EU support to further develop and improve VET in Croatia will continue through the establishment of regional centres of competence in vocational education for mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, agriculture and health. For this purpose, EUR 108.8 million was contracted through the ESF Operational Programme.

The Call objective is establishing Regional Centres of Competence with the aim of providing practical skills to students and adult learners in vocational education and training. It is expected that by the end of implementation 7225 learners and 2640 teachers will take part in the project activities.

Media Coverage

This article has been published in Croatia by 24sata