A Business Cluster Is Helping Redefine Vocational Training

Mekalit plant, Bulgaria. Photo: money.bg

Theory isn’t your thing; you like knowing how stuff works and making things with your hands. You are not alone: there are thousands of youth like you in Bulgaria.

Yet, applied learning is not a significant part of the curriculum, even in vocational schools. The course material and teaching methods are often outdated; teachers are in short supply; and all students hear is that vocational training is a dead-end street.

The upshot is unmotivated youth who are unprepared for the job market and companies that cannot fill the available jobs.

Trakia Economic Zone Cluster Association has a plan to help both companies and students.

Starting this academic year, the association is offering applied classes to vocational school students from the Plovdiv region. Supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the two-year pilot program will introduce youth from a variety of backgrounds to the opportunities for professional development offered by Trakia Economic Zone, the country’s largest industrial complex, and will equip them with the practical skills necessary to find employment there. Classes will be held at the Trakia Center for Professional Training and taught by university professors as well as engineers and instructors from Trakia Economic Zone companies.

“Our goal is to offer training in a technologically modern facility where students acquire industry-relevant knowledge and competences,” said Plamen Panchev, chairman of the managing board of Trakia Economic Zone Cluster Association and the program’s chief architect. This will prepare young people to assume sought-after jobs as machine technicians, machine operators, mechanics, electricians, and others.

School principals visit the Trakia Center for Professional Training

Sixty high school juniors from four vocational schools in the Plovdiv region were selected to take part in the program’s pilot edition in 2020/2021. Because the students are pursuing high school degrees in fields as diverse as mechanical engineering and agricultural and food technologies, the association’s instructors have adapted the curriculum to suit each school group’s needs and achievement level. All groups will benefit from the instructors’ motivation and interactive teaching style and the training center’s state-of-the-art equipment. Upon advancement, learners will take part in practice sessions at company facilities, while successful completion of the program will qualify them for assistance with finding internships.

“The first year will be a test for how students, teachers, principals, the Center’s educators, and employers respond to the trainings. If the model is successful, we will expand it to other schools in the zone and replicate the experience in other industrial zones and training centers,” said Rosen Kosturkov, who heads the program for Trakia Economic Zone Cluster Association.

“Our goal is to generate interest in these professions among youth in the region and to better prepare them for the various opportunities offered by Trakia Economic Zone. If we manage to spark an interest in the least motivated students, our results will be even more solid,” Mr. Kosturkov added.

Learners at the Center will understand how modern hydraulic systems work

“When I first met Mr. Plamen Panchev four years ago, he impressed me as being a visionary not just for business but for education, and the fact that he has been able to bring everyone together in such a worthy endeavor is a testament to his commitment to Bulgaria and to creating good jobs for the citizens of this country to stay. It’s so encouraging to see what collaboration can do,” said ABF President Nancy Schiller at the program’s official launch on September 24. The event was attended by Bulgarian Economy Minister Lachezar Borisov, company executives, representatives from regional and local institutions, and school principals.

Trakia Economic Zone itself is the outcome of a collaborative effort. Officially founded in 2013, the zone unites six industrial complexes: Maritsa, Rakovski, Kuklen, Plovdiv Industrial Park, Innovation Park, and Kaloyanovo Agricultural Center. It is home to more than 180 companies, many of them global leaders in their fields. Over 2 billion euros has been invested and upward of 35,000 jobs have been created in the six complexes in the past 25 years, the oldest of which was established in 1996. The support of Plovdiv Municipality as well as of eight local municipalities and several associations ensures consistent communication and coordination between local and state authorities, educational institutions, associations, and business communities.

The official launch of the training program took place on September 24 at the Trakia Center for Professional Training

Thanks to Trakia Economic Zone, Plovdiv region has registered the highest increase in the number of created jobs of any Bulgarian city since 2010. It also came in third in The Financial Times’ European Cities and Regions of the Future 2018/19 ranking in the Foreign Direct Investment Strategy category.

Unsurprisingly, economic development has made the city an ever more attractive place to live. In a May 2019 article, The Guardian examined Plovdiv’s bucking the national brain-drain trend: for the past several years, more people settled in Plovdiv than left town. The article singles out Plovdiv’s laid-back pace, attractive employment opportunities in the IT sector and industrial enterprises, and vibrant art and social scenes as key for Plovdiv’s successful turnaround.

New York Times reporter Sebastian Modak also touted Plovdiv’s attractions after spending a week there in April 2019. He later admitted in a Q&A for his newspaper that he sees himself living in Bulgaria’s second city.

We have no doubt that Plovdiv will continue to charm Bulgarians and foreign guests alike, and at least some of the credit will be due to public-private initiatives like Trakia Economic Zone.

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