Being on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, Europe faces radical challenges in relation to its workforce. The emerging cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things and cloud computing demand knowledge- and skill-intensive jobs, and therefore require well-educated and highly-skilled employees that combine excellent technical, generic and entrepreneurial competences. It holds true, most of all, for the manufacturing sector, where processes and organization have completely changed, and in particular for engineers who appear the driving force of innovation and advanced technologies.
However, according to a number of EU documents (A New Skills Agenda for Europe 2016, European Semester 2016, Measuring Skills Mismatch 2015, European Vacancy and Recruitment Report 2014, Skills Mismatch in Europe 2014, etc.) there is a shortage of a talented engineering pool, which impedes the march towards Industry 4.0. The skills mismatches are staggering - 40% of EU employers have difficulty finding employees, including engineers, with the skills they need to grow and innovate, which results in hindering EU productivity and excellence. In addition, the youth unemployment, including engineering graduates, in some EU countries is very high (e.g. BG – 22%; PL – 18.1%, Eurostat).
The above situation differs across EU member states – there are some countries such as Germany and Austria where work-based learning has been introduced in higher education to foster the graduation of a new generation of industry-ready engineers thus facilitating their entry to the labour market and reducing the skills mismatch in the engineering positions, and others such as Bulgaria and Poland where this concept is still under discussion at tertiary level. As a result, according to a 2015 EMEA survey, in BG “engineers” is the first on the top job list employers have difficulty filling and in PL – the second top. Furthermore, BG has the second highest skills mismatch in EU and PL is in the middle of the scale but still below the upper quartile.
Therefore, there is a desperate need for deep-rooted and ongoing cooperation of different stakeholders in the education-to-work process within the respective regions so that they can communicate skills needs in the high-priority sector of mechanical engineering and mechatronics, jointly develop work-based learning curricula for engineering students in order to deliver education at both universities and workplace and share experience and competences thus having available industry-ready engineering graduates, reducing skills mismatch and youth unemployment and boosting industry growth and innovation.
The proposed project “Apprenticeship Cluster for Industry-Ready Engineers of Tomorrow” is an alternative solution to the above challenges and needs since it will provide a new VET-business cooperation structure in Mechanical Engineering with the active involvement of local/regional authorities and social partners, where all will meet and share knowledge, competences and experience to elaborate industry-relevant engineering curricula and produce qualified academic and company mentors. It will target work-based learning focusing on apprenticeship in order to engage all stakeholders in promoting and introducing this approach at tertiary level so as to bridge the gap between education and business, improve relevance of university education to the labour market needs and make available a new generation of industry-ready engineers that are able to meet Industry 4.00 skills demands and raise excellence.