Edited by Iliana Papangeli
Translated by Gigi Papoulias
Which Minister of Labor is telling the truth?
The Minister of Labor & Social Affairs, Giannis Vroutsis recently appeared on a TV news show, and made a statement in reference to the reactions to the government’s voucher program to support professionals and freelancers whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic. He claimed that “there are no objections” and that “in the 10,000+ pages of the document regarding the procedures for distance learning, there were four spelling errors on two pages.”
However, then the (same) Minister of Labor & Social Affairs, Giannis Vroutsis, announced the termination of the program, admitting that “unfortunately, the content, in many places, did not correspond to the needs of such a program.”
The two statements were made within the space of a few days. Giannis Vroutsis made the first statement on the morning of Saturday, April 18, 2020, and just four days later, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, he announced the government was withdrawing the program.
In the short time since, however, many things have occurred: mass reactions across social media, strong objections from professional associations, and the publication of a news report which revealed the names of the companies behind the seven e-learning platforms which were used for the program (and their close ties to the New Democracy government), which would have been the recipients of a total of €36 million for their services.
In the wake of all of the above, and after a relevant investigation by the Prime Minister, the government was finally forced to withdraw the e-learning voucher program. As a result, the 180,390 eligible professionals and freelancers are to receive €600 each, without having to “update their skills” via the distance learning program.
However, even with the announcement (which terminated a program that some government officials still continue to defend in recent days), the government has not told the entire truth.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Statement by the Minister of Labor & Social Affairs, Giannis Vroutsis
In this state of emergency and within the context of government measures to manage the coronavirus pandemic, six professional disciplines will receive financial assistance via an e-learning voucher program.
The aim of the program was not only to support the income of the country’s professionals, but also to upgrade the digital skills of the beneficiaries, with obvious benefits for the digital transformation of the respective disciplines and consequently for the Greek economy.
Therefore, the key to upgrading the skills of the participants and creating an added value to the economy was to create a distance learning program of high quality. Unfortunately, the content of the program, in many respects, did not correspond to what was initially intended. And, surely, the program did not fully serve the purpose for which it was originally chosen by the government.
For this reason, after a relevant investigation took place, as directed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the program of financial support for professionals via distance learning is terminated. However, the participants of the program will still receive the aid of €600 for the month of April without any preconditions.
In addition, by order of the Prime Minister, an evaluation of the Vocational Training Centers will begin with a thorough check of the quality of the training and human resources development programs. Something which, in recent years, had not been done.
In the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the government is not halting reforms. In just a few days or weeks’ time, we are accomplishing goals which had not been completed for years. Together, we are building an effective state that inspires confidence. Any shortcomings, as occurred in other circumstances, are identified and corrected.
€193 million to “upgrade skills” for 180,000 professionals
On April 2, 2020, the Ministry of Labor issued a call for expressions of interest in the program to support professionals and freelancers whose jobs are affected by the pandemic.
It was preceded by an announcement of measures to support the professions and employees of businesses that have suspended their operation due to COVID-19. It was also preceded by the protests of sectors that were excluded from these measures, (e.g., lawyers and doctors).
The program for the professionals, therefore, pertained to six categories of professionals (economists/accountants, engineers, lawyers, doctors , teachers, researchers) and differed in two respects in terms of financial support for employees of the affected businesses: the beneficiaries would not receive €800 but €600 and the money would not be given simply as a bonus, but as a “voucher” in the context of completing a 100-hour e-learning program (at €6 per hour).
The budget for the participation of 180,390 beneficiaries in the program totaled €192,965,940. Beneficiaries could choose between “ten contemporary models of instruction” to follow from home on their computer screens:
- Personal Data Protection (GDPR / DPO)
- Electronic system of Public Tendering
- E-Commerce with Modern Software and Tools
- Basic Digital Skills in software (the most recent software/upgrades)
- Modern digital applications / Digital signature – Digital certificates – Digital response in the public sector / Tele-commuting & Tele-conferencing
- Smart Building Programming Technician
- Project Management & Online Collaboration
- Modern training techniques in a digital environment
- Measures for the prevention and control of infections related to care facilities
- Social Media Marketing using modern tools and Mobile applications
According to the call for expressions of interest by the Ministry of Labor, these courses would help to “directly upgrade skills and knowledge in the ever-evolving digital environment.” After all, the aim of the program was “primarily to enhance… with the skills and abilities that are tools to advance the quality and productivity of participants’ work.”
However, the learning experience (for the one week of the program’s implementation), proved that things were very different.
Ridiculous instances which cost tens of millions of euro
The suggestions on the e-learning program were clear: “Do not hesitate to follow back. It’s the surest way to keep your new followers. Unless of course their profiles are fake or their photos are inappropriate, there is no reason not to do so.” Before the user moved on to the next section, one more suggestion was offered: “Also, do not tolerate being unfollowed.”
It is not clear why a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or an accountant would have to learn through state-funded courses how to increase their Instagram followers. Rather, it is difficult to understand how this knowledge can be considered a necessary tool to “upgrade the quality and productivity of work” as the Ministry of Labor had described.
During the first week of the e-learning program, social networks were flooded with examples that challenged the effectiveness and validity of these courses. Excerpts with spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, translations that most likely came from google-translate (at best), words and expressions that made absolutely no sense in any language, and outdated texts with content that may have been useful a decade ago were widely reported on Facebook and Twitter, (and not just from accounts reflecting the opposition party).
Apart from the disapproval of the professional associations, such as the Committee of the Plenary Session of the Bar Associations of Greece, which described the content of the e-learning courses as being of “completely inferior quality”, some beneficiaries even declared that they would not participate in the program (and willingly forgo the benefit) — due to the poor quality of the courses, and because they considered the entire issue offensive to their training and advancement.
When the Ministry of Labor issued a call for expressions of interest in the program, the response they received was so low, that they had to extend the submission deadlines. According to reports, by Tuesday, April 14, 2020, when they decided on the extension, only 110,000 applications had been submitted, when the total number of beneficiaries was 180,390.
Among the categories of beneficiaries, the participation of engineers, lawyers, and doctors was particularly low. But what was the experience like for those who participated in the program?
Lifelong learning through… dictation…
Krystallia Kannavou, 27, is a lawyer. She studied at the Law School of Athens, did postgraduate studies in parallel with her practical training at the same university and completed a second master’s degree in law at UCL in London. Until the coronavirus outbreak, she was employed at a law firm in Athens.
When she found out that in order to receive the financial benefit, she would have to complete one of the e-learning courses, she chose the program for the new European Personal Data Protection (GDPR / DPO).
“I chose this course over the other two that are suitable for the legal profession, that is, the e-commerce course or the one about the system of public tendering,” she told Solomon MAG.
“I chose it because many companies ask us to draw up their contracts in compliance with the new European regulations. So, I assumed it would be good for me to have a certificate, and that these 100 hours would not be completely wasted.”
During the first few days of the course, when Kannavou tried to log in and participate in the program, the platform crashed.
When the technical problems were finally fixed, she noticed that although it’s 2020 and the regulation regarding the relevant European legislation has been in force since 2018, the text on the course slides used future tense. It was actually material written in 2016, referring to things that would happen in the future.
The issues don’t end there. “The program has two units related to regulations and one unit contains nothing more than just dictating its articles, something I can do on my own,” says Kannavou.
Lawyers who participated in the e-commerce class, who spoke to Solomon MAG, told us that the course bibliography listed sources written in 2000.
….and completing a unit in two seconds
Based on the program’s procedures, by registering on the platform, Kannavou secured €400 out of the €600 benefit in her account. However, it was unclear to her and the other beneficiaries who spoke to Solomon MAG, (until the program was terminated), what they had to do to receive the remaining €200. Initially, they assumed that they had to complete the units of their program.
The course participants had created a group Facebook page to communicate with one another, and it was evident that many people were using software such as AutoClicker (which automatically clicks on a computer screen without the user having to use the mouse, or even be present). Learners could then automatically “click through” the class slides in each unit without really participating in the course.
In addition, the information that some Vocational Training Centers provided by telephone was different: they clarified that it’s not the completion of the unit that matters, but of the 100 teaching hours on the platform.
This means that even if a participant successfully finishes the program, they wouldn’t be considered completed since the required hours had not been fulfilled. In order to complete the required hours, however, there were obstacles.
On platforms used by the participants to access the programs, upgrades were often carried out, which resulted in recorded hours of monitoring disappearing. Thus, it was not uncommon for a user who had completed e.g. 50 hours of monitoring, to find out the next time he logged on to the platform that only 20 hours were actually recorded.
A user of the program gave us a similar account. He took the Personal Data Protection course, and on the system, he appears to have completed the first and second units in record time.
How long did it take to complete the units successfully? According to the system, only three seconds: two for the first unit and one for the second unit.
The Vocational Training Centers in the role of administrative support
The examples of the ridiculous excerpts from the training programs were often accompanied by criticism fired at the Vocational Training Centers (VTC) which, even today, are widely believed to have offered the programs. In reality, the 399 Vocational Training Centers in the country which participated in the program had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the programs offered.
In reviewing the relevant Ministerial Decisions, it is revealed that, for the program for the professionals, the VTCs merely acted as the mediator between the participants and the actual providers of the training.
One could even say that, in reality, their contribution to the entire program was nothing more than the provision of administrative support. What does this actually mean? The VTCs carried out the task of helping the beneficiaries activate their voucher and gain access to the e-learning program. And that’s where their involvement ended.
There were seven providers of Integrated Electronic Training Systems which offered the e-learning programs. These providers were on the relevant register of the Ministry of Labor.
Each Vocational Training Center was obliged to contract with one of the providers, so that the beneficiaries of the VTCs could attend the courses of the providers, and thus the VTCs were not involved at any point in the actual training process.
“Their job was essentially to complete our registration, to take our calls and listen to our complaints about platforms that don’t work, and explain to us that it’s not their responsibility,” a participant said.
Advertising, offers and a free tablet
Inversely proportional to the beneficiaries’ participation in the training program was the fee which each Vocational Training Center would receive. Each voucher (and therefore each beneficiary) corresponded to €470, of which €420 was for training and €50 for the certification that the beneficiary would receive upon completion of the process.
The Vocational Training Center would receive their fee in three phases. Upon each registration they’d receive €20. Upon completion of the program by the beneficiary, they’d receive €400.
This largely explains what the participants have reported, claiming that they were told by the VTCs, (regarding the program and what would be required of them): “don’t worry, register and if you don’t complete the course, we’ll complete it for you.”
This is, after all, was something to facilitate the process, and would offer them at least €400 for each participant. The third phase, in which they’d receive €50, was paid out with the completion of the certification.
The high revenue margins of Vocational Training Centers (€420-€470 per beneficiary) most likely offer an explanation as to why, (once the e-learning program was announced), TV and social media were flooded with ads by the VTCs, addressing prospective beneficiaries.
In fact, although the call for expressions of interest by the Ministry of Labor mentioned the educational and professional benefits of the program, certain ads rendered the true aspect of the situation in a much clearer way.
The Vocational Training Centers in the ads did not mention the sheer benefit of enhanced learning, or the program’s contribution to the enrichment of skills. The message was simplified and had the sole purpose of aiding in the submission of the beneficiaries’ applications: “you are entitled to some money, let’s help you get it.”
In fact, the significant profit margins which the VTCs gained from each beneficiary gave them the opportunity to offer deals. For example, offering free hours for other training programs hosted by the VTC or offering free books or even tablets. And in an even more striking example, one VTC promised a bonus payment of €100 for each beneficiary who chose the particular Center.
The government’s half-truth
It is not yet known what will happen to the remuneration stipulated for the Vocational Training Centers and the providers, or what will become of the at least €2.2 million that will have to be distributed to the VTCs for registering the participants.
In a statement announcing the termination of the program, Giannis Vroutsis reiterated that in addition to offering financial support for professionals, the goal was to “upgrade the digital skills of the beneficiaries,” linking it to “obvious benefits for the digital transformation of corresponding sectors and consequently for the Greek economy.”
Shortly afterwards, he added that the content in many places was not what it should have been, announcing that “an evaluation of the Vocational Training Centers will begin with a thorough check of the quality of the training and human resources development programs.”
While the statement implies that the responsibility lies with the VTCs, however, as we have seen, they have not made any contributions to the creation and content of the e-learning programs.
On the contrary, the responsibility lies with the government, and in particular with the Ministry of Labor, which has drawn up the “Register of Approved Integrated Electronic Training Systems,” following the recommendation of the “Integrated Electronic Training Systems Evaluation Team.”
It is the government itself that chose the providers and approved the content of the programs. However, despite the uproar over the issue, in the recent statement by the Minister of Labor, no investigation was announced.
Perhaps it’s not necessary for the very content of the programs to be investigated. After all, a few hours before the program’s termination was finally announced, Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis said he had received “thousands of emails from professionals saying that the e-learning program is very good.”