In earlier times, leaving your home country to venture abroad was seen as an undertaking fraught with danger! Today, international experience is seen as an excellent building block – if not a prerequisite – for a successful career. The new realities of our globalized world mean that employees not only need to be able communicate in a second language, they need to understand the unique culture and market structures of business partners in other countries. A number of European Commission educational programs support this approach, and the Steinbeis Innovation Center for European Projects has EC accreditation as an official coordinator and project organizer for these programs.
Today, professional experience and skills and expertise gained through academic education are often not enough to guarantee a successful 30–40 year career and maintain an edge over competitors. And professional development measures are not the only way to keep learning after formal education. New kinds of informal learning are emerging – such as learning in everyday life, through changing working conditions, and in response to the demands of a constantly changing society.
At every stage of their lives, people learn for different reasons, in different ways and in different places. So lifelong learning is not restricted to educational institutions: as well as formal and informal learning in these institutions, lifelong learning includes informal learning in all kinds of locations.
The EC Lifelong Learning Programme was launched at the start of 2007. With a budget of almost € 7 billion – making it the biggest European educational program so far – the program facilitates the exchange of teachers and learners of all ages between different EU countries. It also promotes partnership between European educational institutions. Set to run until 2013, the Lifelong Learning Programme brings together a number of longstanding educational programs for schools, universities and professional education, complementing these with a Transversal Programme. A range of subprograms also cover education and professional development outside colleges and universities.
The Youth In Action Programme funds informal extracurricular educational activities for young Europeans. It aims to help young people develop a sense of personal responsibility, initiative, and an interest in others. In particular, the European Voluntary Service enables young people to spend time in different European countries. This gives them insights into differences in the professional world and day-to-day life, and helps foster intercultural skills. The Leonardo da Vinci Programme is the only EU program dedicated to vocational education and professional development. It funds partnerships between European companies, chambers, management and labor, vocational schools and educational institutions. This includes facilitating the international exchange of apprentices, employees and instructors, as well as students and teachers at vocational schools. The Grundtvig Programme is dedicated to adult education, and includes Learning Partnerships which enable lecturers in adult education to take part in professional development activities in other European countries. The program lays particular focus on older adults and those lacking basic qualifications.
All key players in education – governments, businesses and employee associations – are in favor of mobility between European countries, especially for educational purposes. In recent years, the proportion of vocational students who spend time abroad has doubled to around two per cent per year. But compared to university students, this number is still too low. Oft-cited reasons for this include insufficient information and concerns regarding organization and financing. Companies often cannot or are unwilling to send apprentices abroad for longer periods – even though experience has shown that even a short secondment to another country can be beneficial. In just a few weeks, young apprentices can gain new insights into different cultures and ways of working. Many also return feeling more self-confident, having dealt successfully with an unfamiliar situation. Inadequate foreign language skills are seen as a major stumbling block. In response to this common problem, the Steinbeis Innovation Center for European Projects offers special project-oriented language training. Spending just a few weeks in another country can also bring benefits – people who have spent time abroad are often much more motivated and more comfortable communicating in a foreign language.
Spending time abroad, however long, is an important tool in human resources work. As well as integrating time abroad into company apprenticeships, it can also be dovetailed into HR development. Promising young employees who spend time in another country not only benefit in terms of skills and expertise – they can even complete training in specific areas.
The Steinbeis Innovation Center for European Projects manages collaborative projects with partners from almost every EU country. Smaller companies and organizations without partners in other European countries, or those concerned about “drowning in bureaucracy”, find the center’s subsidized projects especially beneficial.