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Finnish fast track through the employment office

Finnish fast track through the employment office

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, photo: Cata Portin

During the 90s, Finland succeeded in rapidly reducing unemployment among young people. Now new tools are needed to move on. A system of fast-tracking them through the employment office has proved successful. The method is called society guarantee. The aim is for all unemployed between 17 and 25 to either get a place of study, start work training or to get a taste of working life in workshops.

Some 60 young people are gathered at the café at Sininen Verstas (the Blue Workshop) in Annegatan, central Helsinki. They listen in silence as one of the instructors tells them wh at they will be doing. 

This is where the Education Department of the City of Helsinki runs a workshop for young people to try out one very special part of working life; creative professions. They get to be actors, make animation films, sew theatre costumes, learn textile printing or how to run a restaurant.

 This is not a playground, but real work ordered by real clients. The costumes are for one of Finland’s greatest cinema successes – the film about the troll Rölli was made here. 

These projects have clear targets and schedules. Susanna Palo will be instructing nine young people in how to colour and print textiles. 

“Each student makes a portfolio. Most people start studying after this. After last spring’s course, seven out of nine are now studying to become teachers, graphic planners or craftsmen.”

Couldn't afford nursing school

During six months of work, Sininen Verstas will also be a reference point for Eveliina Paksuniemi (19), Monica Heinonen (19) and Jerry Rimpinen (23). They’ve all been sent here by the employment office, but their histories differ. Monica Heinonen spent three years studying to be a practical nurse, but had to leave because she couldn’t afford it. 

“When the rent was paid, I had 80 Euro left every month to live off.”

She would have liked to continue her education if she could afford it. Eveliina Paksuniemi spent some time in upper secondary school and six months in vocational school to be a carpenter. She would like to work with her hands.

“I’ve also worked in telesales and in a nursing home, but you don’t make enough money there to get by.” 

The girls are learning textile printing. Jerry Rimpinen is learning what it means to be an actor, even though he too would prefer to do textile printing. He’s hardly done anything at all since elementary school, only some drawing and painting at home.

“I guess I’ve been living a bit leisurely, had my time off and been pretty lazy.” 

Searching his inner self

All three have been sent to the workshop by the Employment Office, where advisors have given them various alternatives to choose from. But what happens in six months from now? The answers aren’t clear. Jerry says he’s searching his inner self. 

“I’d like to get back into a normal rhythm of life, so I can lead a normal life in the daytime – and get a proper job.”

 Eveliina still aims to be a carpenter and Monica a carer. But both think it is crazy that society gives more support to the unemployed than to students.

“As unemployed I get 600 Euro a month, as a student only 300 Euro”, says Eveliina. 

Hellevi Bengs has been executive supervisor for the Sininen Verstas since the start-up twelve years ago. She guides the others in the group past our table and stops in the middle of the theatre stage. 

“Believe in yourselves and that you can actually achieve something”, she says. 

100 year-old friend 

Then she tells the story of how she was going to travel to Brazil and make a film together with her 100 year-old friend from Estonia, who died before the wild plan could be set in motion. 

Later we meet in the workshop’s minimalist office. Hellevi Bengs tells me many of the young people who come here have big personal problems and come from difficult family situations. Those who can’t keep up with the speed at the workshop must leave. The philosophy at Sininen Verstas is not to provide therapy, but even so it has happened that young people who seemed hopelessly lost in the labour market managed to fight back and regain their self-confidence in the process. 

“We don’t want to involve health workers or psychologists, but to do what we can ourselves. This is a fair work place, and what we don’t want is a group of patients. We are not therapists, but if our work feels therapeutic it’s only for the good.” 

Not accepted

At the same time she feels that the Education Department at the City of Helsinki, which has the overall responsibility, doesn’t quite appreciate what they’re doing. They would rather put unemployed young people into education or see them get work experience within traditional trades, like wood or metal work. The workshop used to have eleven staff, now they are five. The animation group has lost their permission to operate. 

At the same time creativity is one the most important skills in future labour markets.

“Media, arts, crafts – that’s where you find the work places of the future in the centre of a metropolis. The trend is clear”, says Hellevi Bengs, whose husband is about to finish his PhD in city culture.

The young people who have come here were selected after interviews at the employment office. The process is part of a new system which came into force at the beginning of this year, aiming to get young people into work faster. It’s called society guarantee, and should give young people under 25 the chance, within three months, to either join an educational institution, get work experience or a place at a workshop like Sininen Verstas. In order to qualify for this, they must have been unemployed continually for at least three months. 

“I registered as unemployed in April in order to get here”, says Monica Heinonen. 

Assessment within a month

The employment offices must redistribute their resources so that they can have special advisors to look after young people and give them personal supervision. They must map the clients’ strengths and weaknesses, and teach them how to apply for a job. An assessment must be made within a month to map the needs of the job seeker, and a plan for job seeking must be prepared. The philosophy is to give the young intensive service and make sure they’re not forgotten. Matias Fredriksson is an advisor for young people at Kampens employment office. He says the society guarantee definitely has put more pressure on staff, but that most young people have got somewhere within three months. 

“At least if they’re motivated themselves.” 

The system will expand next year. The Government has put aside 25 million Euro for the society guarantee in next year’s budget. 23.5 million is earmarked activation measures like education of young people and grants for new business ideas, while 1.5 million go to workshops. That money will not cover any new services, however. 

Positive reactions

Chief Inspector Päivi Haavisto- Vuori at the Ministry of Labour, says the society guarantee still hasn’t been fully assessed, but that reactions from the field have been positive. The methods have been in use earlier, but for the first time they have been applied nation-wide.

“What’s most important is that resources are aimed at special measures involving youth advisors. The larger employment offices have had the possibility to create teams, and that is noticeable in the level of service provided.”

 Nearly 100.000 young people were unemployed during the economic depression at the beginning of the 1990s. But with the upswing in the economy that figure diminished, and until 1998 it looked like a good trend. Since then the reduction in unemployment has been slower, even though things have been looking up since the start of 2005. But most new jobs are short term or low-wage jobs in the service industry. On average, 32.000 young people have been unemployed during the first seven months of 2005. That’s 3-4000 below last years’ level. 

“Young people are a buffer for the business cycle”, says Päivi Haavisto-Vuori.

Puppet rehearsals

Jerry Rimpinen, Eveliina Paksuniemi and Monica Heinonen during puppet theatre rehearsals (picture above).


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