The patronage class of Solaris Bus & Coach functions within the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina (Poland, Greater Poland province). It serves as an example of a large private enterprise with a state vocational school. The initiative is a response to a shortage of qualified workers on the local labour market. The main goals of the project are to allow the company to recruit qualified physical workers and, on the other hand to create an opportunity for youth to pursue vocational instruction with a perspective of long-term employment and with access to modern didactic infrastructure.
(Article by Joanna Tobys, Natalia Kaszkowiak and Marcin Woźniak, based on the Erasmus+ project Trio2Success outputs)
The background of the class’ creation
Bolechowo-Osiedle is a small village in the Czerwonak commune1, which is situated in Greater Poland – one of sixteen Polish provinces. The number of Bolechowo-Osiedle inhabitants was merely 1000 persons in 2016, while the number of Czerwonak’s citizens was about 27 000. The whole area is under the influence of Poznan agglomeration which is a large center of services and industry. Moreover, Poznan is characterized by strong entrepreneurship and crafts traditions (DSiG 2010). Many Western companies have established their agencies in Poznan e.g. Carlsberg, Amazon, Wrigley.
Solaris Bus and Coach is a Polish company producing city buses, trams, and coaches for a domestic and foreign markets. Despite the neighborhood of the large regional business center – the city of Poznan, the Solaris Company was founded in Bolechowo-Osiedle by Krzysztof Olszewski. The company initially named Neoplan Poland started the first production task in 1995 and produced 72 buses for the city of Poznan with a staff of 36 people. Within the next three years, the enterprise became a leading producer of city buses in Poland. Since 1999 the company has been growing rapidly and presently becomes a major enterprise producing buses in Europe (Wikipedia). Besides most of Polish cities, Solaris city buses and trams can be found inter alia in Berlin, Leipzig, Ostrava, Rome, Belgrade or Strasburg (www.solarisbus.com). The number of all vehicles produced and sold by Solaris is plotted in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The number of vehicles sold by Solaris Bus & Coach 2002 – 2015
As can be seen in Figure 1, the number of vehicle sales was increasing over the past years. In 2002 the firm sold 243 vehicles, while 13 years later the sale was almost six times higher and reached the number of 1296 vehicles. Parallel to the production growth, the number of employees was also rising and in 2015 it reached 2300 persons. Consequently, to manage the demand, Solaris established two welding workshops in Sroda Wielkopolska.
Simultaneously to the bloom of Solaris Bus & Coach, the labor market in Poland and Greater Poland was undergoing a transformation. It must be emphasized here, that the past two decades were a time of significant changes in the entire Polish economy which affected the regional as well as local labor markets. The transformation was the result of a period of economic prosperity, combined with the accession to the European Union in 2004. Due to the latter large amount of additional funding was transferred to the Polish economy. Furthermore, Western European labor markets were opened to Polish labor force and Polish citizens started to search for a better living and working conditions abroad. As a result, the number of unemployed persons, seeking for work, rate has decreased significantly, particularly in Western Poland, where Czerwonak is situated. During the past 12 years, the unemployment rate in the Czerwonak commune has decreased by 5.5% and reached the value of 2.5% in 2016 (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The unemployment rate in the Czerwonak commune 2004 – 2016
Source: Central Statistical Office of Poland: Local Data Bank.
During these years, the situation on the local labor market has become difficult for some employers which could not find the workers with adequate qualifications. The shortage concerned mostly qualified workers, engineers and IT staff (MANPOWER 2015). This situation was not helped by the fact that vocational schools are not a popular choice of the youth in Poland (Goźlińska, Kruszewski 2013). One of the reasons for students’ aversion may be the negative image of vocational training or the mismatch between labor market demand and VET supply. These phenomena affect Poland as well as the Greater Poland labor markets (DSIG 2010). Furthermore, as recent studies suggest (e.g. Lis, Miazga 2013), students prefer to choose high schools which end with maturity exams required for starting higher education. Finally, demographic problems are important in this context. Some social, economic and cultural factors cause the number of people in the working age and pre-working age to decrease in Poland in genaral, and in Czerwonak commune in particular (GUS), which may deepen problems with recruiting workers in the local labor market.
Regarding these phenomena, the Solaris factory in Bolechowo had to face some difficulties related to human resources. The main problem was the lack of the proper candidates who would apply for work in Solaris factory. Mainly, the enterprise could not find sprayers, welders, electricians, and mechanics – the basic staff needed to manufacture the buses. The candidates usually had insufficient training and low professional experience (Employer Branding 2013). In 2006, in order to satisfy the increasing demand for staff, the Solaris Company started the initiative of patronage classes and initiated a collaboration with a nearby vocational school.
Despite the relatively good situation on the Polish labor market, the problem of school-to-work transition is much more complicated. One can easily see that unemployment among the group of young people up to 30 is higher than the average unemployment rate in Poland. Eurostat noted 21% of unemployed among youth in Poland in 2015. Numerous papers prove that youth employability depends mainly on the fluctuation of the business cycle, and on institutional issues (e.g. OECD 2010). Regarding the latter, among the most important issues, Chomczynski and Kaminski (2012) enumerate high labor costs, high minimum wage, and rigid labor law all of which discourage employers from hiring youth workers. Wolbers (2007) adds some national institutional conditions related to the vocational education system and employment protection legislation. The author points out that there are fewer problems with school-to-work transition in countries where schools provide clear information about students’ skills to employers. Other problems arise in this context, such as globalization and in relation to it, dynamic economic changes and technological progress. In fact, this issues are the significant signs of the present economic reality and may also influence the transition to labor market
Economists suggest that the response to the difficulties of youth on the labor market may be effective vocational education (e.g. Lucas et al. 2013). That is, vocational education which is strongly associated with the labor market and employers’ needs. Usually, it is called workplace learning as the process takes place in the employers’ firms with real-life working tasks and tools. OECD (2010) includes a diverse set of activities that can be included into the category of workplace learning. These are:
- Job shadowing, when a student follows a worker to learn the job. Job shadowing usually lasts several days.
- Service learning, when student does voluntary work in the organization providing services and in turn gains experience.
- Internship, when a student attends workplace and does the specific tasks. The internship usually lasts for a period of few weeks or months.
- Apprenticeship, when a student attends workplace learning for a longer period of time (usually years).
Van der Velden et al. (2011) proved that workplace based vocational training systems increase the probability of youth’s transitioning to the labor market. However, there are some determinants of efficiency, which play important role in the whole of workplace learning. Chomczynski and Kaminski (2012) underline the role of teaching staff which should ensure the high quality of learning. Another issue is career counseling and strong connection with the labor market reality.
One must remember that workplace learning is a decision of both the employer and the school and is assessed through the lens of capital investment and potential income (Polidano, Tabasso 2013). In 2010 in Poland 79% of vocational schools collaborated with private firms. The most popular form of cooperation are common partnership agreements. In contrast, vocational classes under patronage of specific companies are a recent development in workplace learning and are still much less popular than other forms of joining employers with schools. In Poland, patronage classes function in one per five vocational schools (Chomczynski, Kaminski 2012). As a result, they are not well established neither in the literature nor in educational reality (Goźlińska, Kruszewski 2013). Forms of school-employers collaboration are presented in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The forms of school-employers collaboration
Source: Goźlińska, Kruszewski 2013.
The characteristic feature of the firm patronage vocational classes is the fact that this form of cooperation is also used to manage the public image of both organizations. The prestige of a school rises as it collaborates with a prominent employer; the firm gains as well because it implements the ideas of corporate social responsibilities. The firms (patrons) that support vocational classes are usually large companies which have sufficient human and capital resources. These enterprises also have a clear view of benefits that such collaborations may provide. Goźlińska and Kruszewski (2013) conclude also that the deeper the cooperation, the more mutual benefits appear. The most commonly mentioned advantages are related to fact of gathering working experiences, fewer problems with the school-to-work transition and higher wages among the students who participate in workplace learning.
The functioning of the patronage class at the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina
The fundamental task of vocational education is preparing the students to take up employment after graduating, and in the wider perspective, to adjust flexibly to the changing situation on the labour market. The market demands qualified workers, who are ready to quickly master new tasks while working in very specific job positions. However, many Polish companies report trouble with finding adequately qualified workers (Chomczyński, Kamiński 2012). The mismatch between the quality of vocational instruction and the structure of work demand is one of the key problems of the labour market. The creation of patronage classes helps to amend this divide.
Patronage classes are a form of collaboration between employers and schools. A patron (a company) extends their support towards a class in an upper-secondary school. The conditions of the collaboration are specified in a memorandum of understanding or in a contract. The patronage can take many different forms. Most often, the company invites student for curricular internships, equips the school with appliances for its workshops and with didactic materials, offers additional training for the teaching staff or funds scholarships for the most talented students. The best students are guaranteed to be employed by the company once they graduate. The creation of a patronage class can be initiated either by the enterprise or by the school (Wójcik, 2015).
The patronage classes stand out from other educational offers due to their access to modern equipment. They function similarly to the solutions of the German system of dual vocational training (Zachariasz 2013). The students take part in some classes at school, while other subjects are thought directly on the premises of the patron company, which allows the class to familiarize themselves with modern production technologies. In a “regular” vocational school the students gain their professional skills working in the school’s workshops or in small craft enterprises.
The first patronage class in the country of Poznań was created in 2005. The county and Volkswagen have independently noticed the mismatch between skill and knowledge of youth graduating from vocational schools and the demand on the labour market. The company started to look for a school with whom it could initiate a collaboration. At first, Volkswagen was researching schools in the immediate vicinity of its production plants. Eventually, however, it chose a modern school with experience in international cooperation – the Basic Vocational School within the 1st Vocational School Complex in Swarzędz. The first obstacle encountered by Volkswagen while creating its patronage class was the ministry-approved curriculum for the mechatronics fitter profession. It compromised other skills and knowledge than those that were expected by the company. The problem was solved by a cross-analysis of the Polish and German curricula, as well as the list of skills needed by Volkswagen and creating a new programme which was then accepted by all involved parties. Besides, the company has provided additional training courses in Germany for the teachers from Poland, and has equipped some of the school’s workshops. After several months of preparations, the first students of the patronage class have celebrated the inauguration of the 2005/2006 academic year (Zachariasz 2013).
Solaris Bus & Coach company has noticed similar problems with completing their staff. In 2005 the company was unable to successfully complete the recruitment of new employees. Its dynamic development lead to it experiencing a shortage of sprayers, welders, mechanics and electricians. The problem was worsened by the skills mismatch among the graduates of vocational schools, the greater popularity of general rather than vocational education among youth, and the human capital flight to the labour markets of European Union, which had been opened to Polish citizens shortly before. This prompted the founder of Solaris Bus & Coach, Krzysztof Olszewski, and the mayor of Murowana Goślina, Tomasz Łęcki to come up with the idea of a patronage class. Olszewski had worked for 14 years in Gottlob Auwärter GmbH, the manufacturer of Neoplan buses, which allowed him to observe the benefits of workplace learning being conducted in close collaboration with a given employer. Tomasz Łęcki, on the other hand, has proposed a collaboration with the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina – the only vocational school in the local area.
The first issue that needed to be addressed in preparation process was, very much like in the case of Volkswagen, the problem of the possibilities of adjusting the existing programmes and curricula to the needs of the company. Up to this point, the school in Murowana Goślina has only offered training in different profession than those needed by the company. It did not teach any of the professional subjects that would be useful to the company. Neither of the potential partners had the know-how when it came to school-enterprise collaborations and the rules of organizing workplace learning. In this situation, the experiences of Volkswagen proved to be very helpful.
After adjusting the curriculum, evaluating the possibilities of implementing workplace learning, preparing the workplaces for underage workers in accordance to the health and safety standards, the school and the enterprise were ready to begin training mechatronics fitters. The projected effects of instruction, however, were different than those planned by Volkswagen. In case of Volkswagen the programme focuses on maintenance engineering, whereas the programme developed by Solaris is an attempt to unite the competences of a mechanic and an electrician, with some elements of pneumatics.
The first students were recruited to the Solaris patronage class in 2007. The class aims not just to train mechatronic fitters but also to familiarize the students with the company’s culture in which values such as teamwork, communication, responsibility and honesty are of particular importance. The overarching goal of the project is to start building the company’s future staff while supporting the local educational institutions and investing into the local labour market (Employer Brandin 2013).
An important element of the company’s practice is signing a contract of employment with the aim of vocational training (a particular form of employment contract for underage students in vocational education) with each of the students. Amongst other conditions, the contract contains a paragraph on the student being delegated to the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina which is a part of the General Dezydery Chłapowski’s School Complex in Bolechowo. This eliminates the need to sign another contract with the school. There is no written agreement between Solaris and the School Complex in Bolechowo.
The process of recruitment to the Solaris Patronage Class
Any student between 16 and 18 years of age who has graduated from middle school (pol. gimnazjum; grades 7-9) can be admitted to the Solaris Patronage Class, as long as he (so far no girls have applied to the class) will pass the two stages of the recruitment process. In the first stage the candidate needs to receive a minimum number of points based on his score on the final Middle School exams and on his grades from grade 9. In the second stage, the student files in an application with the company. Required documents include a CV, a cover letter and a reference form the student’s class tutor from middle school. The candidate also needs to have received a positive conduct grade in grade 9. When a student fulfils all of these conditions, he gets invited to an interview with an employee from the PR department and with a workplace learning tutor. For majority of the students this is a first interview of this kind. The interview is conducted in order to verify the candidate’s predisposition for technical tasks. The student is asked for example whether he or she likes to fix small malfunctions. “What have you broken and how did you fix it?” is a standard question. If the candidate appears to be unsuited to the company’s working environment, he or she is asked to reconsider their decision, possibly after an appointment with a career counsellor. Such cases are rather rare, due to the fact that “Solaris” is very active in the area of promoting vocational training. For the past several years the company has been cooperating with middle schools to present their workplace learning programme. Students and teachers can also take part in career awareness trips which give them an opportunity to witness the production processes in the Solaris factory.
In the final stage of the recruitment process the company and the student sign a 3-year contract of employment with the aim of vocational training. The contracts is then given to the students during the formal inauguration of the scholastic year. The event is co-hosted by the company, the school and local government officials form the commune and the county. The event is covered by local press and TV which further helps to build the prestige of patronage classes.
The growth in popularity of the Solaris Patronage Classes is best shown by the consistent rise in the number of the students. Most years 15-16 students are admitted. The number is mostly limited by the organizational capacities of the company: a larger group of students would put too much strain on the production process. Besides, “Solaris” wants to make sure that all of the graduates will have a chance for further employment in their company.
The chart below shows the number of graduates in years 2010-2016
|Year of graduation||Graduates of the Solaris Bus & Coach S.A. class||Total number of graduates of Basic Vocational School at Murowana Goślina||Percentage of the Solaris graduates among all graduates|
Source: based on the data of Basic Vocational School at Murowana Goślina
Vocational instruction and workplace learning
Students of the Solaris Patronage Class receive instruction in three different institutions located in the Poznań county. General subjects are taught in Vocational School Complex in Murowana Goślina, whereas the classes in professional subjects take place in 1st Vocational School Complex in Swarzędz. Workplace learning is conducted in “Solaris Bus & Coach S. A.”. Instruction is organized in this way due to different capacities of all three institutions. The Vocational School Complex in Swarzędz has very good infrastructure for vocational training, and highly qualified teaching staff, which are lacking in the school in Murowana Goślina.
Workplace learning in the „Solaris” company allows the students to earn professional qualifications under the supervision of experienced masters. It ensures exposure to modern technologies and gives the students a chance to gain practical skills. The students take part in workplace learning two days a week. Additional instruction in preparation for the AHK exams2 also takes place during the time allocated for workplace learning in the “Solaris” factory. The students are not included in the shift work system – they always work during the first (morning to early afternoon) shift. They receive, however, the same benefits as other employees, such as workwear, holiday coupons, and meal subsidies. Students also receive compensation for their work. “Solaris” pays higher wages than the minimum ones specified in the Public Notice of the Prime Minister.
Tab. 2 The salaries of underage student-employees according to the Public Notice of the Prime Minister
|1st year of instruction||2nd year of instruction||3rd year of instruction|
|167,26 PLN/40 €||209,07 PLN/50 €||250,89 PLN/60 €||01.06.2016|
|160,76 PLN/38 €||200,95 PLN/ 48 €||241,14 PLN/ 57 €||01.09.2016|
The curriculum is designed in order to allow the students to explore the entire production process. Since the students are periodically transferred from one team to another, by the beginning of third year they gather enough experience to complete 75% of the tasks usually assigned to one employee. The major difference between the standard model of workplace learning and the practice of Solaris is the fact that in Solaris even first year students get assigned to work in regular production teams (Employer Branding 2013). Workplace learning compromises training in the following areas:
- Electrics (from simple tasks to complex systems)
- Mechanics (from basic elements to engine construction)
- Pneumatics (various tasks connected to electrics and mechanics)
- Auxiliary production (metalwork, internal production department)
In their third year the students focus on perfecting their skills in the areas that they find most interesting. Their professional development is always supervised by workplace learning tutors, who are chosen from the most experienced employees of Solaris. They are entrusted with task division, supervision of students’ work and evaluation of their efforts. All of the tutors are certified instructors of workplace learning, having completed state-recognized training courses which were financed by the company. The head tutor maintains a close collaboration with the school which allows the company to access the electronic register and review the students grades and attendance records.
Professional subjects were initially taught during month long training courses at the Regional Centre for Professional Development and Continuing Education in Mosina, about 50 km south of Murowana Goślina. However, the stakeholders realised that this system of instruction does not bring desirable effects. To amend this Solaris started organizing additional training courses to help the students prepare for professional exams. In 2010 the county of Poznań proposed a pilot project for a different system: the students spent one day a week studying professional subjects at the Centre for Vocational and Continuing Education in Poznań. Since 2013 the students have been commuting to the 1st Vocational School Complex in Swarzędz. The School Complex in Bolechowo, the parent institution of the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina, covers the costs of employing the teachers at the school in Swarzędz.
Every student can take the standardized professional exam to gain formally recognized qualification in the „mechatronics fitter” profession. The certification is issued by the Regional Exam Committee. The exams are conducted in the School Complex in Bolechowo (the theoretical stage) and the 1st School Complex in Swarzędz (the practical stage). Besides that, the students have the opportunity to take AHK exams organized by the Polish-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce. The certification earned by passing this exams allows workers to seek employment in Germany without validating their professional diplomas. The AHK examination was included in the class’ programme thanks to the initiative of Solange Olszewska, the board president of “Solaris”. An agreement between the Vocational School Complex in Murowana Goślina, “Solaris” and the 1st School Complex in Swarzędz was signed on 13th of May 2013. It details the areas of responsibility for theoretical and practical instruction in the Solaris Patronage Class. In accordance to this document Solaris has equipped the mechatronic workstations for practical instruction. The documents makes mandatory the participation of all students in additional instruction for the AHK exam. The first exam of the type took place in 2016.
The growing interest in patronage classes shows that vocational schools become more and more interesting for students and parents alike. They are a response to the enormous demand of the labour market for graduates with technical qualifications. They also show that local government entities, schools and enterprises begin to appreciate the fact that education cannot stay separated from the local labour market Employer Branding 2013). All of this results in a growing number of patronage classes in the Poznań county. In the 2016/2017 academic year Volkswagen took under their patronage four classes in the 1st Vocational School Complex in Swarzędz. The students can choose among four professions: mechatronics fitter, vehicle electromechanic, foundry machine operator and industrial automation and precision equipment mechanic. SKF, a Swedish manufacturer of bearings, has also taken a vocational training class under their patronage, offering a curriculum in the profession of machine tool operator. Solaris, having seen the effectiveness and incessant popularity of its first patronage class, has also opened another class of the type at the Agricultural School Complex in Środa Wielkopolska, offering vocational training in the profession of a mechanic. Its students can also take advantage of specially equipped workplaces at the Solaris factory in Środa Wielkopolska to become certified welders. The plant in Środa Wielkopolska manufactures construction frames for the company’s buses.
Effective collaboration between vocational schools and enterprises is beneficial for all involved parties. The main benefits observed by Solaris are related to issues of training and recruiting the company’s future employees. Solaris hires 95% – according to the data form the Basic Vocational School in Murowana Goślina – of the students who graduate from their patronage class. The young employees grow up in the company, strongly identify with it, and learn its work ethos. However, the greatest benefit is the fact that the graduates know the complexities of the entire production process, which means that they need considerably less training than an external hire. The company knows the quality of vocational training which they have received, as well as the young workers’ individual skills, competences and professional knowledge. In the long run such cooperation may allow for reduction of staff rotation and help lower the costs of recruitment (Chomczyński, Kamiński 2012).
The students, on the other hand, value most highly the possibility to get a good job post in their chosen profession immediately after graduating. They can also gain practical skills in operating machinery and familiarize themselves with modern technologies. They take part in manufacturing the newest vehicles, which are always tailored to specific customers. This year one of the company’s models, the Solaris Urbino 12 electric received the prestigious “Bus of the Year” title for 2017 in the category of city buses.
For the school a patronage class serves as a guaranteed method of distinguishing themselves on the educational market. Having an attractive educational offer becomes crucial during the period of demographic decline. Other than that, patronage classes exist to educated students in keeping with the reality of the labour market. This results in an increased percentage of graduates who find employment shortly after finishing their education. School with patronage also have the possibility to use didactic materials that help to increase the quality of instructions, and they often receive modern equipment for their workshops (Chomczyński, Kamiński 2012).
The ideas of collaboration between schools and enterprises are best exemplified by the following statement of the board president of Solaris, Solange Olszewska: “We largely owe our success on the national and European markets to our qualified staff, so we understand, how important it is to invest in the knowledge and skills of young people”.
Steps to be taken
The process of creating a patronage class can be initiated either by the enterprise or by the school. Whichever the case, the founders should begin with an analysis of the local labour market. It is worthwhile to involve the local government entities in the process as well. Such an analysis will allow all the parties to recognize the strengths of regional economy, while also making evident in which aspects the competences of graduate are not adequate to the demands of the local labour market
The following scheme shows the actions that have to be taken by the school or by the company in order to create a patronage class.
Source: authors’ own work
The creation of a patronage class often brings about significant financial costs on the side of the company, the school and the local government. The educational subsidy allotted by the Ministry of Education typically does not cover the expenses of this method of vocational training. The County of Poznań typically spends additional 300 000-500 000 PLN on education (Zachariasz 2013). This sum is used to finance, among others, teacher professional development, new equipment for the schools and international student exchanges. One needs to remember, however, that creating a patronage class brings benefits to all of the involved parties.
We extend our sincere thanks to Ms Monika Rudnicka, Recruitment and Development Specialist at Solaris Bus&Coach S.A, for participating in our interview, and to Ms Joanna Białachowska, Practical Instruction Coordinator at the Basic Professional School in Murowana Goślina, for granting us access to necessary data.
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