Carmakers and other private firms are paying students to take more practical, job-oriented training in special programs designed to improve the supply of Hungarian workers.
Education is supposed to prepare students for working life, but according to Zsuzsanna Kovács, Hungarian schooling can sometimes fall short. “It is important for students to be out at the company and develop their soft skills. These cannot be learned by memory, only through practice,” she says. “Many colleges lack training in these skills.”
As head of the Dual Training and Methodological Center at Kecskemét College Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Automation, Kovács runs a program to address this lack. Mercedes Benz in Hungary sponsors the program (effectively giving private support to the Hungarian education system), which is designed to give students valuable job experience, and to give Mercedes better workers. Although one researcher says data indicates students here might benefit from more of a focus on general education, it seems that the current trend favors practical education, and dual training programs are gaining momentum in Hungary.
These generally include a theoretical component to be completed at university and a practical component working with a private company. Some of the best-known examples are in the automotive sector. Mercedes Benz’ program received an Award for Cooperation in Education from the Hungarian Investment and Trade Agency (the predecessor of the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency) in March 2014. The first group of students to complete the course will graduate in February 2016. Meanwhile other major carmakers, such as Audi, have run programs in Hungary since as far back as 2001. And it is not only carmakers; SAP, one of the country’s largest IT firms is launching its own dual training program for students in higher education.
The idea is that by the time they graduate, the students will be prepared for “immediate deployment” in the words of Dr. Elisabeth Knab, Managing Director of Human Resources at Audi in Hungary. As part of Kecskemét College’s programs with Mercedes and Knorr-Bremse, for example, the students spend 13 weeks at the college, eight weeks at the company, then another 13 weeks of study and return for a 16-week session with the company. The students have a contract with the company and receive pay for their work throughout the duration of the program, and the college does not cover any costs associated with the training. Mercedes also has partnerships with Kandó Kálmán and Gáspár András Secondary Schools in Kecskemét.
Data on the success of this education on a national level is not yet widely available, but advocates point to benefits for both company and student. “The students get to know the company during their university studies,” says Knab of Audi. “Simultaneously our company can get access to future employees in due time.” Ákos Németh, Leader of Mercedes’ Educational and Vocational Programs in Kecskemét says the schemes help his firm address the shortage of craftsmen in Hungary. “Our program can be tailored for future needs should there be new market demands,” he adds.
It would appear that the impact of dual training programs is already significant. Audi Hungary reports that 95% of its current employees have taken part in these programs and that of 400 student participants last year, 102 have been hired as employees. The company operates programs in 11 departments in cooperation with Széchenyi István University in Győr, the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, the University of Miskolc, and the Óbuda University.
Since 2012 the partnership between Mercedes and Kecskemét College has seen enrollment grow from 26 students to more than 130, and the college reports that about 10% of all students at the school currently take part in dual training; it adds that there is increasing demand for the programs, and it hopes to expand them with more corporate sponsorship. Mercedes started with mechatronic maintenance, vehicle mechatronics, and vehicle coating, and now also include a program for toolmakers and a management program. “From a marketing perspective, this is a great advantage for the college; the number of students is growing and we are becoming known nation-wide for this training program,” says Kovács.
Nemak’s plant in Győr producing cylinders for car engines, and SAP Hungary, the local unit of the international software firm, are companies that plan to roll out dual training programs this year. Beginning in August 2015, SAP will send five Hungarian students to Germany for three years in partnership with Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University Mannheim and SAP headquarters, all fees and expenses covered by the company. The students will return to Hungary to complete the last semester of their education here, but are under no obligation to stay with the company upon graduation. “The program will provide a unique skill set that will support free competition,” says Márk Arató of SAP’s Communications Department. Upon completion of the program it will be up to the student where they want to work. “They could choose SAP, they may choose to stay in Germany or go to Singapore for that matter. The program is good for SAP because we have a huge ecosystem,” says Arató, who adds that the program is part of an initiative by SAP to meet increasing demand for IT workers in the EU.
Not everyone believes that dual training programs are the answer, or at least the whole answer. Multinational companies have instituted training and apprenticeship programs in order to improve the talent pool for skilled labor, but some have cited the difficulty in training students who lack basic higher education. According to Dr. Piroska Ailer, Rector of Kecskemét College, it is a challenge for higher education institutions to bring students up to a professional level in just 3.5 years, when 18-year-olds sometimes arrive at college with a 12-year-old’s education level. Not content to wait for government action, Mercedes has a secondary craftsmen-level program for younger students.
Daniel Horn, a research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and ELTE university has studied the impact of these programs on the work force in Hungary and says data appears to show that students lacking a foundation of general education will not benefit as much from dual training programs that emphasize practical skills over theoretical study. According to Horn, the main beneficiaries of these programs are the companies, who have a chance to screen potential employees before hiring. Since the passage of a 2011 law requiring Hungarian schools to increase practical and reduce theoretical training, Hungarian students receive about 1.5 years less in general education than a typical German student, he notes. The researcher says students here would benefit from increased standard schooling. “Without general skills, practical training is nothing,” he argues. “You can build a nice stadium, but what is the point if you don’t have a team that can play.”
But given the benefits for companies, Horn says he expects dual training to continue to grow in Hungary. Judging by the enthusiasm among schools and companies based here, that assessment seems accurate.