Bulgaria: More backing needed for pilot dual-track vocational education and training

Dual vocational education and training (VET), introduced by law in 2015, has been piloted in some professions and VET schools in Bulgaria since the start of the 2015–2016 academic year. The scheme, supported by the social partners, aims to address the lack of qualified labour and to help meet the needs of employers for suitably qualified employees.

Background

In May 2016, the Bulgarian National Audit Office made 22 recommendations to the Ministry of Education in its official report on Professional training for employment 2012–2014 (MS Word). These included developing a system to evaluate the quality of vocational education. Despite government spending on this, one-third of students are still not gaining a professional qualification. Furthermore, the percentage of students receiving a certificate for such training was at its lowest 64.2%) at the end of the 2013–2014 academic year.

In September 2016, the Minister of Education cited alarming figures from a European Commission report saying that more than 50% of Bulgarian employers had difficulty in finding qualified employees. This is mostly because the education system cannot fully respond to the needs of the labour market and because young people lack the motivation to get qualifications.

Employers are also alarmed at the situation, warning that 170 professions have no suitably educated entrants. The funding mechanism used has also failed to improve the quality of this kind of education, according to a statement from the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA) in May 2016. The BIA said this was due to:

  • poor content and quality of vocational educational and training (VET) courses;
  • young people’s rejection of the courses;
  • an inefficient system of career guidance;
  • the lack of adequately qualified teachers.

Introducing dual VET pilot schemes

These concerns were voiced just after a law was passed, in 2015, introducing the opportunity of dual VET. A few dual-track VET projects were then piloted at a limited number of schools in the 2015–2016 academic year with the support of Austria, Germany and Switzerland – all countries where the dual system is well established.

School VET begins when students are 13 or 14 years-old, with dual-track VET beginning at the age of 16.

Cooperation with Switzerland

Switzerland has financed the DOMINO project under the Bulgarian–Swiss Cooperation Programme. As reported by the Bulgarian News Agency, BTA, ‘the project has a total budget of CHF 3,530,000, including 15% co-funding from the Ministry of Education and Science’. This five-year project, which is due to end in 2019, will involve a total of 1,200 students in 15 vocational schools, as well as 10 professions. The aim of DOMINO is to develop new educational programmes and to train teachers, mentors and experts on dual education. Gradually, the hours spent in a real work environment will increase so that, 11th and 12th grade students will spend two days a week at school and three days in factories and companies. The students will sign a special employment contract with the companies and receive a monthly grant of BGN 50 (€25 as at 15 April 2017) from DOMINO, and pay according to the Labour Code and agreed with the respective companies. This is generally 90% of the national minimum monthly wage of BGN 460 (€235) since 1 January 2017

In the academic year 2016–2017, the dual VET project expanded to 19 vocational educational schools. For the academic year 2016–2017, applications for dual VET programmes were made in the districts of Bourgas, Vratsa, Gabrovo, Dobrich, Pazardjik, Pleven, Plovdiv, Rousse, Sofia, Sliven, Stara Zagora, Targovishte and Yambol. Dual VET included 7 professions in 5 vocational schools in Sofia, Gabrovo, Kazanlak and Panagyurishte. The training on offer includes, for example, ‘mechanical technician’ (45 students) and ‘engineer-technologist in the food industry’ (31 students). In the academic year 2017–2018, dual training will begin for cooks, electricians and ‘technicians at energy facilities and installations’.

DOMINO brings together municipal authorities, business representatives, school leaders, chambers of commerce, regional administrations and the Ministry of Education. The idea is to develop the system of dual VET in cooperation with local employers in order to encourage stakeholders and employers to participate. One of the successful pilot schemes is in Panagyurishte. Some 64 students enrolled on this for the academic year 2015–2016, of which 43 specialised in trades requested by the mining company, Asarel Medet. In the academic year 2016–2017 another skill, in road construction equipment, will be added to the programme.

Cooperation with Austria

Austria began supporting the introduction of a classic version of the dual VET approach  in Bulgaria in 2014. This project coordinates the entire process of selecting the participating regions, companies and schools, and assumes responsibility for the organisation of, and coordination between, the participating stakeholders and the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science. The Chamber of Commerce of Austria supports the preparation of curricula for dual training and their adaptation to the needs of business. It also helps train mentors from businesses in the necessary educational and employment law skills needed to work with young people. Austrian, Bulgarian and German companies have been included in this pilot project.

The project was first launched in two cities with two different professions. In Sofia, students have the opportunity to become qualified retail sales people. Theory modules will be taught at the Sofia School of Economics and Finance. The practical training will take place at well-known retail companies such as Billa Bulgaria, dm Bulgaria, Kaufland Bulgaria, Lidl Bulgaria and Metro Bulgaria. In Gabrovo, dual training in mechatronics (that is, technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering) is offered. Students here will study at the Dr Nicolas Vasiliadi professional technical school and receive practical training at metal manufacturer Ceratizit Bulgaria AG and tool manufacturer GWG Gabrovo Ltd.

In parallel with those projects that  are supported by other countries, some local attempts have been made to launch the dual VET system. However, it seems that where VET schools are not backed up by projects and donors the results are mixed, as reported for example, in Plovdiv, where there were no candidates for several professions.

Social partners and dual VET

The social partners have supported the introduction of dual VET. Several members of the nationally representative employer organisations have participated at branch level in dual VET projects, as is the case in the mining branch in Panagyurishte.

Trade unions have organised a number of conferences and debates. In April 2015, even before the introduction of dual VET, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB) had discussed the subject with Austrian trade unions at a forum in Sofia. In February 2017, the Bulgarian Teachers Trade Union claimed tax advantages for the schools involved in dual-track VET.

Even before dual VET was introduced by law, representatives of CITUB and the Confederation of Employers and Industrialists in Bulgaria (CEIBG) had visited dual VET projects at the refrigerator manufacturer Liebherr-Hausgeräte, publishers Marica and clothing manufacturer Pirin Tex to better understand the practical issues involved and to support the legislative changes introducing dual VET.

In early 2016, the president of CITUB declared the union would support dual VET, but said that the State should also back the system for training and re-training the labour force. The president of the education section of the Federation of Labour CL Podkrepa has recently criticised Bulgarian companies, stating that only 5% of them are ready to invest in dual training.

Commentary

The dual-track education and training approach is expected to develop further in Bulgaria but it will need to attract more support from the social partners to succeed.

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