On 26 November 2014 the first congress on non-formal education was held in Warsaw. The congress was an initiative of the Polish chamber of training companies and the Polish Agency of Entrepreneurship Development as well as 11 adult education institutions. It served as a platform for discussing non-formal education as a means to increase competence and innovativeness among Polish people.

The congress gathered 337 participants representing the main stakeholders: training companies, employers, ministries, branch organisations, research institutes and non-governmental organisations supporting lifelong learning and adult education. The agenda included plenary debates on the current situation of non-formal education and its future and thematic panel sessions tackling topics such as quality assurance, training effectiveness, managers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and financing non-formal education.

The starting point for the plenary debate was the very low adult participation rate in lifelong learning, according to Eurostat 4.3% in 2013. Why are existing incentives not attractive enough for Polish employers to invest in staff development? What could be done to encourage SMEs to train their employees?

Another popular discussion topic was financing non-formal education. Over 100 people enrolled for this panel session moderated by Polish ReferNet coordinator Agnieszka Luck. Her presentation summarised financing schemes in several EU countries and compared them with Polish solutions. Poland does not stand out from other countries as regards financial instruments supporting participation in non-formal education. So why is adult participation in lifelong learning so low?

According to 2010 data of the National Statistical Office, 77.5 % of enterprises did not train staff. Large enterprises usually have corporate HRD strategies and sufficient budgets for staff development (only 25% did not invest in training), but for SMEs, which constitute a majority of businesses in Poland, the statistics are devastating. Some 58.6% of medium and 81.4% of small enterprises did not organise any staff training. Although respondents claimed the following reasons: having sufficiently qualified staff (81.4%) or recruiting sufficiently qualified employees (69%) as well as high costs of training (43.5%), the problem is much more complicated as representatives of employers stated.

First, SMEs fight daily for their survival. They concentrate on short-term market strategies and not on long-term staff investments. Second, sending one of a few employees to a two or three day training seminar with no replacement, means every absence of an employee has an impact on company productivity. Moreover, in SMEs, due to limited numbers of employees, there is noone responsible for HR. It is usually the owner who combines responsibilities of operational manager, marketing and sales specialist and HR manager, while the latter role is most likely limited to absolutely necessary tasks. There is simply no time to think about staff development, scan training offers or deal with bureaucracy while applying for EFS grants or training fund support.

Discussions during the panel session concluded with a reflection that perhaps support for SMEs should take a completely different character, and focus more on employees who seriously think of their professional futures and actively plan their careers. All these topics might be subjects for next year’s congress.

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