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Hillevi Engström: more social responsibility needed in working life

Hillevi Engström: more social responsibility needed in working life

| 29.11.2010 | Text: Berit Kvam Photo: Janerik Henriksson / SCANPIX

Once the leading star of Swedish Police, Hillevi Engström is now in charge of whipping working life into line. She wants to use her role as Minister for Employment to challenge businesses to take social responsibility. In return she offers economical incentives and an improved education system.

Hillevi Engström was made Minister for Employment in Fredrik Reinfeldt's second government on 6 October 2010. It came as no surprise for those in the know; she had been a member of parliament since 2002 and led the labour committee from 2008. 

"We know her already," says one of the department's civil servants, who quickly adds she is a good employer. 

Equally important, perhaps, is the fact that she understands working life politics - she was a worker's representative in the Swedish Police Union and parliamentary chairwoman. 

In September's general elections the coalition government ran for the second time on a ticket with jobs as the main priority. But Hillevi Engström surprisingly holds up primary schools and pre-schools as areas deserving of her main focus.

"I also have two children," she says.

"The most important thing is to grant children and young people in Sweden the opportunity to realise their goals. Each child and their talents must be acknowledged and nurtured. That's how you build the basis for a good working life. Schools must see the individual, that is a very important piece of the jigsaw," she says. 

When it comes to working life politics her main focus is to make sure businesses take their social responsibility seriously.

"I see it as a challenge to give those who are the furthest removed from the labour market a chance to get in. That means working life must open up too, and we will do our bit to make that happen. My department is planning how to do this right now," says Hillevi Engström, who believes more employers would take responsibility if only they were told what they can do. She will help them, she says.

"Then we need to have a working life which accepts more sides to life than just the one. Sometimes we are 100 percent productive, other times things happen - you get ill, you divorce, there's a death in the family. There's a myth here in Sweden, and perhaps elsewhere too, that you are always expected to function at top level, but no human being can. People aren't robots. There must be some give in working life. The alternative could be to say you need to stay at home, sick, for five to six years before you are needed again."

How will you get that message across to employers?

This is long-term work. We can give incentives like making it easier and cheaper to hire people, and we can influence attitudes and spread the good examples. There are employers in Sweden who actually do take great social responsibility."

Your background from the police union, does it mean the unions have gained a stronger spokesperson in the ministry? 

"I have great respect for the unions, but I also have great respect for the employers and it is important to keep a balance," she says.

She wants to build on the Swedish model. How does she characterise it?

"Simply put it is strong, legitimate parties. The cornerstone of the collective agreement is for two parties to agree to a deal which ties in a third party, and that is unique. In order for the third party - those who are not organised - to feel this is OK the level of organisation needs to be pretty high. Politicians should keep away as much as possible. We make frameworks and rules to protect working life, then it is up to the parties to decide.

Why did you choose to join the Moderate Party?

"It is a party which believes in the individual, and which can give the individual greater freedom and greater opportunities."

Since October she has been whipping working life into line for the government. A range of measures aim to stimulate both potential workers and employers to become more active: it should pay to work. Lower taxes to those who work, lower employer taxes for employers. When a new employee has been outside of the labour market for more than a year the employer doesn't have to pay any employer's tax at all. In Sweden that's a 31 percent saving. The government has also made it easier to employ people on a temporary basis or for trial periods. Meanwhile coaching and matching have become near magical words which should open the doors to working life. 

A new group of workers outside the public employment service has emerged - coaches who's job it is to help people back into working life. 

Is this a positive development?

"I don't believe this can solve all the problems on its own, so we work on several measures simultaneously. But my impression is that those who have been without work for a long time and have applied for many jobs with no result, may have lost some of their self esteem. Job coaching looks at the individual and improves the jobseeker's self esteem. It is important that somebody sees me and the possibilities I carry with me - which jobs I can go for. But this is not an issue which can be isolated. We also have labour market training and apprenticeships to help the long-term unemployed back into work."

Her style is muted, yet direct and she very much has a presence. There is no hesitation before answering any questions - straight to the point with no embarrassment. I remind her of Sweden's eight percent unemployment rate. This is lower than during the crisis and a little bit lower than the OECD average, yet highest out of all the Nordic countries. The economy is picking up and the government faces criticism in the media as many businesses struggle to find qualified people. They need to import specialists from abroad, it is claimed. 

The minister doesn't see anything wrong with that, we live in a globalised world, she says. Swedish workers work abroad and foreigners work in Sweden. But, she says, it is important to make use of the possibilities in today's marketplace:

"A Swedish company could for instance approach the employment service and say they're looking for a CNC operator. The employment service can immediately pick five people with this education and send them to the company. That way the employment service works as a recruitment agency which is free to use for employers. This is an opportunity I feel can be explored further.  

So employers aren't using existing opportunities?

"I think the employment service needs to become better at marketing its services. This was news to me a few years ago, the fact that employers don't need to advertise for people or use recruitment agencies. All they need to do is order a person with the right skills. If the employer then hires someone who is long-term unemployed the employer's costs are halved. The employer can also hire several workers on temporary contracts or for a trial period. So there might be more opportunities than what is being talked about."

She also believes there might be a shortage of skills in certain areas. One problem, she says, is that educational institutions have not been focused enough to train people for the jobs that actually are out there. Furthermore:

"Students might not have been given good enough information about which education leads to which jobs, and we have career advisers in schools who don't know enough about the possibilities that are out there or how to reach them."

Maybe the eight percent unemployed should get the chance to improve their skills in order to make them more attractive in the labour market?

"Yes, and that's why the government has put so much effort into education. We're talking historically large efforts. Partly in vocational training for youths and adults, but also within colleges and universities. Never before have we had so many university students. This is one of our largest efforts, because we want as many people as possible to get an education within our regular education system."

Support for education is being expanded further. Perhaps closest to the minister's heart is a special bid to educate young people - for now a temporary measure which has been included in the budget and which will be carried through if the budget is approved in parliament. 

"Youths make up a large and complex group, but those who have not finished their primary education or college are now given the chance to come back, while they receive a grant of 6.000 Kronor (€640) a month for a maximum of three years so that they can finish their education.

"Schools create the platform upon which you can fight unemployment," says Minister for Employment Hillevi Engström.


Sweden's Minster for Labour Hillevi Engström (M)

Member of the Moderate Party
Represents Stockholm county in parliament

She carries the title Detective Inspector, was born in 1963 and has two children.


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