Europe needs an Erasmus for SMEs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The pilot scheme allowed participating companies to send one of their employees to work in another company abroad for a period between two weeks and two months. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report An Erasmus for SMEs to support the economy.

European project MobiliseSME showed the potential of a cross-border exchange program for small and medium-sized businesses in Europe. It is now important that this idea is continued with an Erasmus for SMEs, so as to help European companies make the best of the Single Market, writes Stefan Moritz.

Stefan Moritz is Managing Director of the European confederation of small and medium-sized entreprises, CEA-PME.

The European Union Single Market is the largest free trade area in the world and it hosts around 23 million small and medium-sized businesses. These businesses, in 2015 alone, generated €3.9 trillion and employed 90 million people – they are the backbone of the European economy. For the European union and its member states to thrive, SMEs must also be able to thrive.

Much has already been done in this direction as companies in Europe can access customers from every country in the European Economic Area while at the same time finding the most convenient providers for goods and services.

However, the legislative framework has only removed legal obstacles and export fees but still too many small and medium-sized companies are facing other, more practical hurdles. According to the European Commission’s Annual Report on European SMEs of 2016, only half of these firms export in the Single Market, and the absolute of majority of those still have only very little export activities.

European Entrepreneurs CEA-PME believes that one solution to overcome these hurdles would be to help SMEs connect with each other across borders more easily. Stronger connections among companies in different European countries would naturally lead to more competitive businesses able to respond to the challenges of globalisation.

There is a tested and tried method to do that: the EU has a history in successfully connecting citizens and institution in different Member States with exchange programs.

This is idea that lead to the project MobiliseSME, which aimed at exploring and evaluating the interest in and benefits of an exchange program for the employees of Micro, Small and Medium-sized businesses in Europe.

The project included a pilot exchange scheme that allowed participating companies to send one of their employees to work in another company abroad for a period between two weeks and two months. This exchange was structured around a learning plan that enabled the staff of the two companies to share knowledge and acquire new competences.

The scheme was hugely successful – enterprises felt they benefitted greatly from it as it helped them to find new business partners and develop new products and services. Employees are convinced it strengthened their professional profile (more information available at the MobiliseSME in Practice report).

MobiliseSME just explored an idea but it is clear from the results that it would be a real missed opportunity not to continue with a mobility scheme for SMEs and their employees in Europe.

Currently there is no European scheme that enables them to go cross-border, as they often do not qualify to join programs like Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs. The same is true for more experienced staff members, who also have limited possibility to access international training offers via national or European programmes.

MobiliseSME showed a path to design a permanent EU programme of this kind: an “Erasmus for SMEs and their employees”. It is already possible to say what some of its key elements should be:

MobiliseSME showed that the exchange time should be flexible, allowing employees to stay abroad for a period between a few weeks and a few months. Each exchange should be structured around a learning programme devised by the two companies, with the clear goal of providing training to either the visiting or the hosting staff.

The programme should be supported by a European network of local association with strong contacts with SMEs in the local territories of each member state.

The project showed this network is necessary to make sure enough companies would be informed about it to make it a viable programme and, at the same time, to provide the necessary advice and support to make sure exchanges would develop from an intention to a fact.

An online tool for the matchmaking of companies is also necessary. The Matchmaking Platform used by MobiliseSME showed the utility of such a tool not only for companies to find partners for exchange but also for the supporting organisations to get the necessary feedback and information to provide a tailored service to registered businesses.

The Member States and the European Institutions are now debating the structure of the future multiannual financial framework. We strongly believe this is the time to design an “Erasmus for SMEs and their employees” and to make sure resources are set in place to enable SMEs to really take advantage of the potential of the Single Market. If necessary, one path for designing it could be another project scaling up the initial work of MobiliseSME.

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