IN A CITY that was once an ancient capital of early Russia, a technical college and telecommunications company are finding ways to bridge the skills gap that still disables the country's industry, nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Technical Economical College of Novgorod State University has been working closely with Novgorod Telecom for the past three years under a European Training Foundation-backed project to rebuild vocational training to meet the demands of Russia's emerging market economy.
This year the first group of students trained under the North West Russia Pilot Project will graduate and a dozen will be employed directly by the telecom company.
Close collaboration between college staff, students and telecom engineers during the project should ensure that the new network engineers are ready from day one to tackle the region's ambitious conversion programme from analogue to digital telecommunications.
Novgorod, one of the ancient defensive "Golden Ring" cities that dot the landscape of northern Russia between Moscow and St Petersburg, lies on the country's busiest telecommunications network, routed north to Finland and international connections.
Modernising the network and skills development for Novgorod Telecom's 2,600 employees, have been priorities for some time, says Galina Chadina, the company's head of personnel and project steering committee member.
Workplace training and annual skills updating have long been core principles in the company. But the link with the technical college has added a new dimension, she says.
"We're pursuing our own aims in working with the college - it's profitable for us to have specialists coming here who understand the technologies we use.
"By being closely involved with the trainer, we can also influence course design and content. Last year, for example, we wanted to reorient the training provided by the college more exactly and were able to do so in a way that would be impossible with other training providers in Moscow or St Petersburg," Mrs Chadina says.
The link between the college and company is one of 14 such schemes in four regions of northern Russia involved in the European Training foundation pilot. The project covers telecommunications, hospitality and tourism and forestry.But, in Novgorod, the aim is more than simply to train students.
Engineers and managers from the company attend courses at the college, and lecturers experienced in the theories of electrical networks have been updated on modern practical applications at Novgorod Telecom's own training centre.
Hands-on training for students, who pursue three-year courses to attain qualifications at specialist technical levels, takes place at the company's premises.
Leonid Yakovlev, a co-ordinator for the regional education committee, says that the link with Novgorod Telecom differs from the old Soviet training partnerships in its sophistication, flexibility and devolved decision-making.
He says: "In some ways it is similar - we find out what local industry needs and arrange training to meet those needs. In other ways it's much more straightforward, there's no need to refer everything back to Moscow and we can co-ordinate everything locally."
Gennady Teleshov, vice-director of the technical college, said the link enabled students to compete for jobs with the many trained engineers already looking for jobs, as a result of the closure of many of the old radio-electronic factories.
He says: "All the graduates who win places at Novgorod Telecom will go to district switching stations where their skills are most in demand."
He explains that the European Training Foundation helped to set up the link by providing information, workshops and conferences to demonstrate western best practice. The project is already attracting attention from other local employers, Mr Teleshov adds. A questionnaire designed in association with a partner college in Finland has been sent out to other large employers interested in the scheme.
Close monitoring of the scheme by the foundation and Russian ministry of education should ensure that the Novgorod experience is spread throughout Russia in the coming years.
Arjen Vos, the foundation's head of operations in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, says the north-west Russia project is proving that creating sustainable partnerships to help drive training - a key area of economic reform - is possible in Russia.
"I am very impressed - the project has reached a point where the role of the European partners is now decreasing and the Russians are taking over. They are now asking the questions and setting the priorities for planning the future development of the project," he says.