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Improving access to digital skills for SMEs

By Platform

The term ‘Industry 4.0’ refers to ‘the intelligent networking of machines and processes for industry with the help of information and communication technology’ (Platform Industrie 4.0). It implies the adoption in the industrial sector of a variety of digital technologies such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and advanced robotics, but also new materials such as bio- or nano-based, and new processes such as data-driven production, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), and synthetic biology.

Industry 4.0 does not only involve the adoption of new technologies but also the adoption of the right skills, knowhow, and organisational forms to fully exploit those new technologies.

Preparing SMEs for the adoption of the Industry 4.0 paradigm is what the Interreg Europe 4.0 Ready project is about. The project partners are working together on policies and practices aiming at assessing SMEs’ digital maturity skills and skill needs of entrepreneurs, owners, managers and staff at all levels.

Fostering the access to skills – policy improvement in Lithuania

The European Social Fund Agency (ESFA) is the Lithuanian representative in the 4.0 Ready project and the organisation managing programmes under European Social Fund (ESF) in Lithuania on behalf of different Ministries. In the framework of 4.0 Ready ESFA worked more specifically on programmes implemented on behalf of the Ministry of Economy and Innovation of the Republic of Lithuania aiming at improving the skills and competences of SMEs’ employees.

The rules in place within Lithuanian regulation for the funding of training activities (‘Programme Funding Conditions’) were historically quite strict and much more adapted to onsite than online training activities, making the administrative burden for both applicants and ESFA quite heavy. As a consequence, online trainings tended almost not to be applied in ESF supported projects during the period 2007-2014.

At the beginning of the programming period 2014-2020, the rules were still the same. However several elements made the relevant stakeholders aware of the necessity to adapt to new requirements:

  • The need analysis performed with SMEs demonstrated that more flexible approaches to training were required.
  • The analysis also showed that restrictions to remote learning already negatively impacted employees’ ability to adapt to I4.0 changes.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic brought the necessity to modify the existing rules of the funding of trainings in order to be able to implement already granted projects, which were not able to deliver the planned onsite trainings anymore.

The 4.0 Ready project, which had started in August 2019, gave ESFA the opportunity to present and discuss the results of the above analyses and to compare the programmes in Lithuania with relevant good practices from other countries. Especially the practice Itinerarios 4.0 from the Government of Navarra (Spain) and the Training Voucher for Managers and Entrepreneurs from the Regional Government of Tuscany (Italy) were deemed relevant for the policy challenges in Lithuania.

A comparison enabled to identify that the ‘Programme Funding Conditions’ for online training activities were more flexible in those programmes, without a noticeable loss in quality in terms of skills development compared to onsite trainings.

A group of national stakeholders bringing together the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, the Lithuanian industrialist association, Invest in Lithuania, Vilnius Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Crafts worked on the adaptation of the practices identified within the 4.0 Ready consortium to the existing Lithuanian policy instruments. The new ‘Programme Funding Conditions’ for online training activities were presented to the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, leading to an agreement at the end of December 2020. The main changes were:

  • The necessity to combine remote learning with onsite learning was dismissed.
  • A complex monitoring and criteria for assessing employees' progress in online trainings were fully abolished.
  • A new monitoring system was introduced, enabling ESFA to follow-up easily on the training activities funded.

The proposed modifications were accepted by the Ministry of Economy and Innovation in January 2021. Those modifications have a direct impact on ongoing projects and new measures were prepared for a call launched recently in October 2021.

It is expected that the new rules will enable to decrease the overall costs for training by fostering the use of remote learning methods and provide companies with the opportunity to get more people trained, as employees will be able to learn new subjects and acquire new competencies outside usual working hours.

Lessons learned – Interreg Europe as policy accelerator

While it is too early yet to assess the impact of the policy improvement for supporting online training activities in SMEs in the field of Industry 4.0, the example of ESFA illustrates well how bringing together the right organisations in a interregional project can lead to fast and significant policy changes.

As mentioned by Agnė Naruševičiūtė and Miglė Aleksonytė, representing ESFA in the 4.0 Ready project, “besides the rules for the eligibility of online training activities, the policy changes realised implied also a change in the culture within the managing authorities in their way to fund and monitor training activities”. This was made possible within a limited amount of time thanks to the input of the project partners and the commitment of the Lithuanian stakeholders.

This is what interregional policy learning is about.

Photo credits: Rawpixel on envato elements.
Industry 4.0
Digital uptake
Good practice