While lower costs have helped Poland grow to become one of Europe's largest outsourcing destinations, the country's outsourcing providers are beginning to realise they can no longer compete on cost alone. Now, Polish outsourcing companies have started reaching out to universities to make sure those entering the job market are equipped with the softer skills they need.
As one of the largest sectors in Poland, employing around 110,000 people, the outsourcing industry has been brimming with optimism for several years now. But, while Poland is still by far the largest outsourcing destination in Central and Eastern Europe, its nearby competitors are not sitting idle: with wages in Romania and Bulgaria even lower than in Poland and both countries having recently become fully fledged EU members, Poland will have a hard time in keeping up the cost-reduction war.
But, while pricing is important, it's not the only factor that counts in outsourcing. "If it were, everything would have been outsourced to India and China," said Wiktor Doktor, CEO of ProProgressio, an organisation which supports Poland's outsourcing vendors.
The advantage, says Doktor, remains with Poland. "Poland is keeping its edge compared to countries like Romania and Bulgaria because of its scale. We've got 16 large institutions for higher learning and almost 20 academic institutions. Romania and Bulgaria have far fewer."
Still, companies in Poland are not standing still, and are seeking new ways to differentiate themselves. It's no mean feat, because — as a Polish Google manager highlighted to ZDNet last year — the fundamentals of mathematics, science, and technology are the same wherever you go. Vendors have broadened their services portfolio to include more specialist offerings, opening up even more chances of finding a job to Poland's newly-minted graduates.
It's not easy for university leavers, however. Late last year, Polish IT companies warned that certain softer skills need more attention — in many cases, those graduates that lose out on new positions don't fail because of a lack of knowledge or technical skills, but on things like teamwork, project management and customer contact.
"I myself used to think that soft skills weren't that important," one IT manager from Lodz told ZDNet. "But technical skills can be taught relatively quickly in comparison. We can prepare a liberal arts graduate to do front-line helpdesk duty in six to eight weeks." Learning soft skills is a matter of years and experience, he added.
That means the outsourcing industry, just like any other, needs to reach out to students to stay competitive, Doktor argues. "Unfortunately, for most students the phrase 'outsourcing' still conjures up images of call centres and invoice processing," he said. "The group of students that's familiar with the more complex outsourced processes and sees career opportunities is smaller. But that's changing because companies are getting ever more active and visible in universities. Companies like Infosys, HP and Accenture are getting more involved in student life."
Working with universities
What do such efforts look like? Companies and educational institutions have started so-called IT clusters (klaster in Polish) — regional working groups formed by IT companies (including many outsourcing providers), schools and local government organisations. There's one for the north-west-region of Poland, for example, one in Eastern Poland, Silezia, Central Poland and so on.
Beside streamlining things (and a bit of lobbying) between governments and service providers and think tank-esque activities, these clusters also work with schools in order to connect the theory taught at university and the things service providers are looking for.
"Companies are organising classes. For example, BPO providers are giving classes at the University of Lodz about their field and what is required. We have started post-doctoral courses at the University of Radom, and similar courses are given at the Lazarski University in Warsaw," Doktor says.
Some courses are immediately put in line with what providers want. "The University of Szczecin offers courses in SAP, which is the most-used platform for financial service centres." He does point out that one large challenge in these efforts is for them to stay flexible: should another platform rise in prominence, courses need to change accordingly.
It doesn’t stay with courses in specific platforms either. The Central Poland cluster has helped the Technical University in the city of Lodz (home to service centres of Infosys, HP and Fujitsu, among others) to set up competence profiles in order to help the school add accents in their courses tailored to what the employment market wants. The companies deny, however, they are mingling with the academic programme, as these profiles are only there to help putting some accents in the courses that prepare students for things like teamwork.
"Service providers need to keep on top of this trend," Doktor says. "Outsourcing is an industry, just like the automotive industry and aviation. From year one it is vital to make the themes that are important [to the industry] accessible to students, so they can further develop themselves and specialise."