Education and business in Poland: friends or foes?

The business world has largely embraced the tech revolution and the cutthroat dynamism of the 21st century, but is the education system generating the skills and talent that the new generation of business demands?

American author Amanda Ripley raised eyebrows when she included Poland in her 2013 New York Times bestseller, ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’. “Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the united states in both subjects,” she wrote. “In the space of three years, Poland had caught up with the developed world. How could this be?” since 2006, Poland has been performing remarkably well in international standardised educational tests, ranking above the OECD average in reading, science and mathematics. This puts the country in competition with countries such as Finland, South Korea, Germany and Canada. While these achievements are extraordinary, there is another side to this story. Young people, educated and raised by schools to function efficiently first and foremost as individuals, are largely unprepared for what the business world has in store for them. Rapidly developing technology, the pursuit of better communication, and access to knowledge all call for systematic changes. The business world caught on pretty quickly, but what about the education system? Are the country’s ‘knowledge factories’ producing graduates well-equipped for the challenges of the modern world?

The pros and cons of tech

The rise of algorithms, robotics and innovative technology all at first fascinated the world, but soon it became obvious that we needed to start asking questions about whether it all went too far. A report by McKinsey from 2017 titled ‘A future that works: automation, employment, and productivity’ found that 5% of existing occupations could function entirely without human’s contribution, while 60% of all occupations contain at least 30% technically automatable activities. Automation improves the speed and quality of performed tasks and, as per McKinsey’s estimation, it can raise productivity growth globally by 0.8-1.4% annually. It is then quite logical to assume that employers would take advantage of the opportunities that automation gives them and start implementing more and more technologically driven solutions.

But what will this mean for an average employee? “Employees, whose jobs are being replaced by technology, are faced with the necessity of retraining and gaining new skills. The importance of occupations and tasks that require technical skills based on technological development is increasing, which brings changes to the market’s structure,” said Marcelina Godlewska, Managing Director at the Association of Business Service Leaders (ABSL). A report published by ABSL this year found that the majority of the analysed companies (70%) had introduced various solutions requiring intelligent automation and were currently testing them. Although 30% of these companies had not yet implemented the changes, they conveyed that they planned to do so in the future. Godlewska added that this rising demand for specialised skills has influenced the structure of the job market. “This brings opportunity for higher salaries, but on the other hand, there is a need to act against technological unemployment. That task requires changes in the education system on all levels”.

This begs the question as to what actions the education system needs to pursue in order to meet these challenges? According to Jakub Gontarek from the Department of Skills and Competencies at the Lewiatan Confederation, people are currently educated rather than taught. “Students should be taught how to learn, not only take for granted theories that are  imposed on them. It is key to develop the need for constantly growing and learning – either formally through courses, training, coaching programmes or informally by fun activities or games.” Rafał Flis, co-founder of ‘Zwolnieni z Teorii’ (‘Unshackled from Theory’), agrees. “The whole of Europe has the same disease – students are told to learn everything by heart, and while there is nothing wrong with knowing the basics of biology, chemistry and so on, school should be more than that,” said Flis, whose institution provides an educational platform for young people to design their own social projects.

Seven out of ten tertiary-educated adults have a master’s degree in Poland compared to three in ten on average across OECD countries. However, their relative earnings compared to a bachelor’s degree are lower than in most countries.

Faced with these problems, the Ministry of Education (Ministerstwo Edukacji Narodowej – MEN) claims to have prepared solutions which will allow young people to gain skills and competencies necessary for functioning efficiently in the dynamically changing reality of the 21st century. These solutions involve introducing the basics of coding, algorithmics and the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) to the core curriculum through the subject of “Information Technology” (IT). This all sounds very well, but there are some doubts about the real effect of these changes. One IT teacher from a primary school in Kraków interviewed for this piece revealed that there are possibilities for teachers to enlarge their knowledge by attending free courses and workshops, organised both online and offline. However, she underlined that before the change in the school programme, algorithmics was already part of the school curriculum and from her experience, it was often too difficult for children to understand. Those who wished to know more could do so during extra-curricular classes run by teachers after school. “Only last year, the occupation of computer programmer (technik programista) had been introduced in Polish technical schools,” said Gontarek. “There is still a strong notion in Poland that technical subjects should be taught at technical universities (politechnika) – but the reality is that business, and especially the production side of it, suffers from the lack of mid-level employees.”

The education system, however, must be doing something right in this field, as Jadwiga Emilewicz, Minister of Entrepreneurship and Technology, points out. “Today Polish programmers are recognised as the best in Europe and the third in the world after China and Russia,” she said. “In the two most popular coding languages, Java and Python, Polish programmers are ranked first and second.”

Social skills to the rescue

Faced with the rise of technology, the education system has another challenge to overcome: the task of helping young people develop skills that will not be replaced by AI (or at least not yet). As Gontarek said: “skills such as leadership, teamwork, emotional intelligence and willingness to learn and grow as a person are necessary to work with others, no matter the job title. The ins and outs of the job can be easily taught and verified, and then the company can decide whether the employee is worth investing in. But the social skills – or lack thereof – will come to light sooner or later.” The value of social skills that take longer time to develop seems to be understood by both the government and the business sector. It is an issue that Emilewicz knows all so well. After labour shortage issues, she said that the deficit of soft skills in the Polish workforce is the second biggest complaint that businesses bring up with her. Similarly, MEN and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (Ministerstwo Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego – MNiSW) see gaining skills such as independent and analytical thinking, entrepreneurship, effective communication and creativity as an important part of education on all levels. Moreover, except for the “regulated occupations” such as law and medicine, since 2011 there is no longer a setlist defining what a particular university degree should look like. This means that universities can customise their programmes to the needs of the fast-changing labour market – although MNiSW still maintains that “it is not the role of the university to educate people for a specific occupation.” After a quick look at the university of Warsaw’s new degree programme for the academic year 2019/2020, it’s clear that the institution has taken a step in that direction through the addition of degrees like medical chemistry, cognitive science and computational engineering. similarly, Jagiellonian University in Kraków has this year introduced courses such as eurasian studies, environmental protection, and management.

However, these changes do not seem to solve another problem of the Polish education system, which Flis sees as the highly individualistic approach to learning. “Everything is focused on independent work, which results in young people not being prepared for working in a team. I have heard many stories about absolutely brilliant people, educated in Poland, who moved to Silicon Valley only to be brutally confronted with their own egos. They had to learn how to work with other people, how to ask for help,” he said. Ewa Asztalos, a Polish literature teacher at one of Warsaw’s high schools with over 30 years of experience, admits that teachers try to implement new methods in order to break the individualistic pattern, but these are not always effective. “Studies show that echoic memory is the lowest one for young people,” she said. “They often don’t listen to the teacher, and even if they do, they can’t memorise it; as soon as the information is learned it is soon forgotten. That’s why we try to back out from traditional lecture-style classes and do something else – for example, use interactive whiteboards if there is money for them or work in groups. But pupils tend to work less effectively that way. There is often one leader that does all of the work and a few people who do nothing – and then it is hard to fairly mark their work.”

The broad fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction; information and communication technologies; and health and welfare offer the highest employment rates in Poland (more than 90%) while employment rates are lowest for those who studied arts and humanities (OECD).

The business sector also sees interpersonal and analytical skills as necessary. “skills such as the ability to solve problems, data analysis, maintaining interpersonal relations, communications and creativity are becoming more and more important when faced with the evolution of the labour market,” said Godlewska. Wojciech Fedorowicz, Managing Partner at TDJ Pitango Ventures seems to agree: “The three most important qualities of a new entrepreneur would be, firstly, openness for learning, receiving and giving feedback. secondly, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes, willingness to come back from a dead-end path – this means you have to be brave enough to make mistakes while building something new. And lastly, an often undervalued quality, namely persistence. While building a start-up, you need to put in a lot of effort, but the day-to-day duties usually do not bring spectacular results.” Interestingly, according to the Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Technology (Ministerstwo Przedsiębiorczości i  Technologii – MPiT), 72% of startup owners are over 30, 15% over 40 and only a small group is in their 20s. It seems that young Poles need some encouragement to start their own businesses. Initiatives such as ‘Start in Poland’, the biggest programme for start-ups in Central and eastern europe, might be a good start.

The bigger picture

Poland is definitely not alone with its struggles to effectively link education and the labour market. A rather alarming 2014 report by McKinsey shows that a total of 7.5 million young people in Europe are neither in education nor in employment, and more than half of those who are not working claim that they just can’t find a job. One of the reasons is a big discrepancy between the skills needed by employers and those that young people actually possess. However, the report does not include Eastern European countries, and claims its history and economy to be “distinctive”.

According to eurostat data, the youth employment rates (people aged 15-24) in Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia are lower than the EU’s average. Poland has one of the highest employment rates of people with higher education among EU countries – for people aged 25-74 it is 88.1%. However, it does not mean that young people are better prepared for the labour market, because people with university degrees in this age group only represent 30% of the Polish population. When looking at employment rates for those with upper secondary education, Poland notes one of the lowest scores in the EU at 69.6%. This data clearly shows that attending a university in the country is the safest way to land a job and trade schools are still considered mediocre at best and useless at worst. Those who choose not to attend university might just not be that lucky with finding a job.

Interestingly, Central and Eastern European countries differ in their approach to reforming the education system. Both Czechia and Hungary have followed the English model and introduced tuition fees for their university courses, while in Poland and Slovakia higher education is free for EU citizens. Among these four countries, Poland also has the highest rate of access to higher education, with approximately 470 institutions, although the number is expected to decrease because of the recent reform by MNiSW. When looking at governmental expenditures for higher education in correlation with GDP, Poland spent 1.2% of its GDP on tertiary education in 2017, with only two other EU countries spending more than that – Finland (1.8%) and the Netherlands (1.4%). However, the overall percentage of education spending (4.9%) falls just above the eu average (4.6%), with 12 other countries enjoying a higher rate.

This data proves that the country has the capacity to become an educational leader in the CEE. However, in terms of preparing the students for the challenges of the business world, there is still a lot to be done. As Gontarek said: “Well-defined education systems such as that in Hong Kong respond to the question: what kind of employees do we want? The education system has to meet the needs of the labour market and currently, all the actions are implemented ad hoc, rather than in a holistic, systematic way.” Fortunately, from a business perspective, the situation today is better than it was a few years ago. “If we look at what we had 10 years ago, the progress is enormous,” said Fedorowicz. “There are people and companies that come up with ambitious projects that are not merely a copy of Western businesses. entrepreneurs are fully engaged, but they often lack the second key element – experience. But the new generation of serial entrepreneurs is coming. It’s just a matter of time and the pace in which business markets will develop.” There is hope for changes in the education system as well. ‘Zwolnieni z Teorii’ has bigger plans. “We’re planning something that will change the way in which we think about education in Poland,” Flis said, holding his cards to his chest. “It’s only a matter of months.”

National Class System

The school system in Poland consisted of three tiers until 2017: primary school for kids ages 6-12 (6 classes), lower secondary school for teenagers ages 13-16 (3 classes), and high school/technical school/trade school for young adults ages 16-19 (3 or 4 classes, depending on the type of school). In 2018, the lower secondary school system (gimnazjum) was cancelled, primary school was extended to 8 classes, and high school – to 4 classes. The school year 2019/2020 will be the first one after the reform, with so-called “double class” – last year of those teenagers who finished secondary school, and first year of those who finished the new, extended primary school. They all need to find a place in the first year of high school or another type of upper secondary education.

Hands-on education

In August, Poland took a positive step towards bridging the demand-supply skills gap by launching its first P-TECH programme, an international public-private initiative designed to prepare high school students to enter tertiary education and ultimately, employment in the field of ICT. Backed by IBM, Samsung and Fujitsu Technology, this programme was rolled out into three technical high schools in the Katowice area. Alongside their other subjects, students will receive hands-on education in computer science or mechatronics over a five-year diploma, which also includes mentoring and paid internships in participating organisations. The programme is set to be deployed in other areas around Poland.

May 08, 2018
A Matter of National Survival
Jadwiga Sokirkówna teaches secret language lessons in Łopiennik Górny despite the restrictions during the German occupation in 1941. Education is important in all countries. In Poland, however, it’s ingrained into the very fabric of the national character. This is not surprising when, for large parts of the country’s history, teachers and students could be arrested [...]
Written by: Marta Janek

Marta Janek is a University of Warsaw and London School of Economics graduate, currently based in London. With a passion for media and gender studies, she works as a media analyst and plans to do a PhD in the future. Marta has been involved in organising LSE Polish Economic Forum 2019, the biggest conference about Poland happening abroad. She writes about education, feminism and all things Polish.