A Croatian and UK partnership has developed a student mentoring programme in Croatia to increase internship opportunities in the workplace. Jane Rexworthy reports on a highly successful project


In September 2016, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) partnered with the Croatian Employers’ Association (HUP) and UK-based skills and quality assurance experts, People 1st International, to develop an internship and mentoring programme for students in Croatia. In partnership with employers, this initiative was designed to open work internship opportunities for students.

The project has yielded outstanding results, with more than 135 employers signing up to participate in the internship programme and collectively registering more than 500 internship vacancies since its launch.

People 1st International was invited to take part in the project due to our extensive experience in developing youth inclusion employment programmes across the world and a capability around coaching and mentoring.

Central to EBRD’s philosophy is that its projects leave a lasting legacy. As such, People 1st International also had the role of an enabler, which included helping to establish a template for a coaching programme for mentors that could be offered across Croatia by HUP into the future.

Another objective of the programme was to help bridge the gap between the skills that employers are looking for in students, and the skills and capabilities they’re gaining from their degree programmes. It was felt that a greater understanding by both sides on this issue would help universities improve the relevance of their programmes and improve skills transfer.

Equally, by engaging directly in the training of students, organisations would be in a better position to address the challenge of skills gaps in the academic curriculum by putting in place the relevant training and development.



Consecutive years of economic recession in Croatia have seen the youth unemployment rate soar – it reached 43% in 2016, for example. This persistently high figure forces many young people to search for jobs and opportunities abroad, representing not just a loss of talent and skills within Croatia, but also having an impact on the country’s long-term growth.

As a result, in 2016, EBRD launched the Private Sector Youth Initiative (PSYI) in partnership with HUP, private sector companies, professional women associations, academic institutions and People 1st International.

The aim is to provide young people (aged 18-25) with positive first job experiences through high quality internships that also offer routes to employment opportunities, while breaking down barriers slowing the progression for young women (in particular) into the labour market.

The internships were designed to help young people gain skills that are directly relevant to the modern workplace and to give them better career progression routes.

As Nataša Novakovic, adviser to the director for the Labour Market and the Development of Human Resources in HUP, says:

“It is not our goal to ‘throw young people into the fire’ and to leave them with no professional leadership. The main task of this initiative is to provide quality education with work in a professional internship, and that is only possible with a mentor who will constantly be available to students in the company and who will provide them with information about what is expected from them and to evaluate a student’s work and progress.”


People 1st involvement

The development and implementation of a mentoring programme to support these interns was therefore one of the four key objectives for People 1st International. In addition, we were tasked with building effective partnerships between employers and educational institutions, developing and implementing the internship programme itself and, critically, building long-term, sustainable capability within HUP at a local and national level so that it was equipped to run and expand these programmes after the initial project phase had ended.

Prior to the launch of PSYI, HUP had identified an impressive group of 35 talented female mentors made up of company executives, businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Supporting women in business and gender equality is taken seriously in Croatia. For example, EBRD is continuing its support for female entrepreneurs in Croatia as part of its ‘Women in Business’ programme.

Given the importance placed on boosting gender equality in Croatia and supporting female talent through targeted interventions, it was decided that the mentoring group would be made up of women only. Harnessing and channelling the tremendous expertise these women possessed was therefore a key part of People 1st International’s remit.

As the mentors came from different sectors and had different delivery styles, People 1st International created a framework so that there was an underlying consistency to the way in which mentoring support is delivered.

This involved helping the mentors to understand the overall objectives of the programme and what was expected of them. Intrinsic to this quality control framework was a layer of coaching support for the mentors themselves.

This ‘train the trainer’ approach also had a capability-building aspect as the establishment of this programme meant that training for mentors and coaches could be offered across the country by HUP into the future and well after our own involvement had ended.


Rolling out the project

The scoping phase for a complex project like this was essential. It was critical to understand what Croatian employers wanted to get out of the exercise, why they had internship programmes, what they were already doing in terms of coaching and other forms of support for their interns and how HUP’s pool of mentors fitted into this bigger picture.

As a first step, the People 1st International team spent a week in Croatia meeting with the employers, as well as all key stakeholders involved: coaches, mentors and interns.

This early scoping quickly revealed that although employers were keen to offer internships to students and willing in principle to consider them for employment after they graduated, there was often a skills gap mismatch. This was especially evident in areas such as problem-solving and decision-making, initiative and reliability as well as communication skills. This feedback was incorporated into the initiative so that the mentors could address this issue directly with students.



In addition to attracting high numbers of employers ready to get involved and of internship vacancies being registered, another highly positive outcome is the success of the mentoring programme in supporting students to understand what employers were looking for and ensuring they were suitably qualified.

Success factors included the role of educational institutions in preparing students for their internships and the effectiveness of employers in offering suitable internship experiences.



A key part of the programme was the capacity-building ‘train the trainer’ component, one of the fundamental building blocks of sustainable, long-term capability. This included us working with HUP to create a comprehensive series of high quality support materials in both English and Croatian to aid the initiative and provide the means to roll it out
more widely.

We also delivered training around these materials to regional HUP representatives in offices across Croatia, so that they could, in turn, support other local universities and employers to deliver internship programmes.

These support materials comprised internship handbooks for employers, interns and education institutions, a half-day coaching programme trainer guide and programme participant workbook, a mentor and mentee workbook and a legal framework agreement (ie, internship contract).

The three main handbooks have since distilled into a document used in EBRD-backed projects throughout the Western Balkans as the basis for training workshops. People 1st International also worked with Croatia’s National Council of Students to help shape its student handbook for internships.


Legal support

Another significant aspect of the support provided by People 1st International was to create a legal framework document that facilitated the recruitment process for employers who wanted to recruit interns without having to go through employment law red tape. We worked with Croatian lawyers to ensure both international best practice and Croatia’s own complex national regulations were taken into consideration and that importantly the internship programme was correctly positioned as a valuable opportunity and that criticism could not be levelled at it as an opportunity to take advantage of talented but cheap labour.


Other take-aways

Project evaluation found that some students had difficulty with the unstructured nature of the internship programme as they’d come directly from the structured environment of a formal education. To address this issue, additional support was offered to employers through workshops to encourage them to consider planning specific projects for interns.

In terms of the value of the programme to employers as a recruitment tool, the evaluation found three-quarters of those who had taken part in the programme had been left with a positive view of the sorts of job opportunities available in the sector in which they’d carried out their internship.

The more involved that senior management become in the internship programme and the more integrated it was in their talent management strategies, the better the overall outcome.


  • Jane Rexworthy is executive director of People 1st International and founder of the National Skills Academy for Retail. She is a CIPD qualified senior strategic business development professional with 15 years’ experience working within technical vocational education internationally and in the UK, and more than 15 years in blue chip companies within the private sector
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