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Work place learning with a human face

Work place learning with a human face

| Text: Gunhild Wallin Photo: Cata Portin (above), Ulla Montan

Life-long learning is seen as the golden key to unlock the magic door to the future. Through continued competence development we shall overcome global competition and accelerating technological development, employers will find competent employees, and employees will be flexible enough to follow the windy road of development. In the long run, knowledge will secure growth and welfare.

Per RisbergInitiatives are taken both at a European and a Nordic level. Nordic co-operation, for instance, promotes life-long learning through projects like the Nordic network for adult learning based on national learning projects. But the Swedish example of adult competence development also shows how divided life-long learning can be.

There's a need for a national movement for learning in Swedish working life, with a particular focus on key competence in every work place", says Per Risberg, founder of the Saab Scania Combitech group, and for the past 20 years its president.

Per Risberg is active within the chamber of commerce in his home city of Jönköping. He also sits on the board of VINNOVA, a government authority under the Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications.

VINNOVA's task is to contribute to increased growth and welfare, though research and development among other things. Per Risberg is passionate about working life learning. He knows how important continuous learning is for production and growth, but he has also experienced how working life learning suffers when the economy deteriorates or becomes more short sighted.

Per Risberg has personal experiences of the dramatic consequences of not having strategies to secure maintenance of competence and development in the work place. He tells the story of when the 'henare' reminded management that he would soon be retiring, and they realised that this would mean a sudden stop in production.

A henare is an advanced grinder who works in certain metal works production. It takes anything up to fifteen years to become a good henare, and at any one time there are perhaps five people with this knowledge in the whole of Sweden.

"Nobody had taken this seriously. We had to convince him to stay on for another year, so that we could teach a new one to at least a half-decent level", Per Risberg explains.

Competence has a sell-by date

He has another example, from a business where mechanical knowledge was key. It employed a civil engineer who was 'king' when it came to electronics. His knowledge had given him a special position within the company and solid annual pay rises. The problem was he wanted to keep his knowledge to himself, and he was not motivated for further education either. Crisis hit when the company received a massive order for logic controllers. A young woman was made project leader, even though she lacked any experience in project leadership.

But the 'king of electronics' no longer had the new competence which was needed. Conditions had changed, and his position was being threatened. He was left feeling utterly worthless. He went on sick leave, and lost all motivation for his work.

"This is an example on badly managed human resources. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if there had been innovative learning, with creative ways of passing on the older worker's knowledge to the younger one, and the other way around", says Per Risberg.

Per Risberg claims that to compete within a competence-intensive industry and through it create growth, it is necessary to increase and transfer competence throughout the chain. Partly because people who carry 'silent' knowledge will soon retire in huge numbers, and partly because today's pension system cannot support the number of people who opt for early retirement simply because they lack the latest knowledge within a certain area. He also feels it is unreasonable to expect young workers with high theoretical competence to spend 10 to 15 years with 'on-the-job-training' to gain the important but 'invisible' competence of older workers.

With the correct pedagogical methods and an environment conducive to learning, this knowledge should be easy enough to transfer during the actual work. Because of this, he wants to see innovative efforts to bring adult learning into working life.

"Weaknesses in the social security system means people will have to work until they're 65, and it makes a huge difference whether people are fully or semi motivated when they're between 55 and 64", says Per Risberg.

A learning relay race

For more than one and a half years now, Per Risberg has been part of a series of seminars in Stockholm, under the banner "The work place as education system - a challenge for Sweden".Kenneth Abrahamsson

Behind this initiative is Kenneth Abrahamsson, adjunct professor at Luleå University of Technology, and responsible for the research network Larena. The seminars were a co-operation between Luleå University of Technology, the Swedish Work Environment Association and the national theme network NTN-Learn. The idea was to rekindle the debate on the work place as an arena for lifelong learning, and to hand the baton to the parties in the labour market in order to highlight important questions surrounding learning. He felt the questions on working life learning were in the ditch after the unemployment crisis of the 1990s and the subsequent increase in sick leave. The aim therefore became to create a conversation on life-long learning, in a work place perspective.

"Questions of learning don't concern only one party or single individuals. It's a team effort, you have to co-operate to achieve success. With this relay exercise, I wanted to see whether there still is space for a labour organisation with a human face, and for new partnership on the question of learning", says Kenneth Abrahamsson.

The social partners and other participants have hosted a range of seminars on adult learning, raising the issues they feel to be the most relevant. Researchers have contributed with their knowledge and views on the relevant questions during the whole process.

One important aim has been to create a dialogue between the social partners, researchers and other a participants who are involved in work place learning. One conclusion has been that the Swedish model, i.e. agreements between the parties in the labour market, has a range of programmes and measures when a business closes or down-sizes - so-called change-over-learning.

"It would be great if there were similar agreements for employees, who are in active work but who need to develop their competence. This is a weak link in the system. We use political means in the labour market, investing a lot to get people into work, and as much on getting them out. We forget, however, about the period when they are actually employed, and supposedly productive", says Kenneth Abrahamsson. 

The many faces of competence

 The learning relay race illustrate how complicated the question of learning in working life really is. It concerns all levels and bridges several disciplines. "We have to start asking ourselves the question

- 'what is knowledge?", says Annelie Hellander from Swedish Municipal Workers' Union.

"It's a challenge for our members to see that knowledge is more than what is being taught, more than what you find in books or inside certain buildings. It's about understanding that knowledge is achieved in different ways, develops in different ways and is being used in different ways", she says.

Knowledge can be both formal and informal. It can be proven through grades, but it can also be built on experience, which is difficult to measure. Professor Ingela Josefson, also headmistress at Södertörn College, tells the story of Ole Christian, a young Norwegian. He has a severe physical handicap, and for a long time he was considered to be mentally handicapped as well. Then special educationalist Berit arrived. She saw something nobody else had seen in the eight-year old Ole Christian. She saw a glint in his eyes which signalled humour and intelligence. She realised it would

be difficult to point out what others had failed to notice, because she was new in her job. But she shared a joke with Ole Christian, allowing a colleague to notice what she had noticed. It was not easy to convince the other colleagues, but Berit was right. Today, Ole Christian has taken the upper-secondary final examination, and is writing poetry.

Ingela Josefson has had Berit as her doctoral student, and has spent a life-time studying silent knowledge. It was this knowledge which led Berit to see that something was not quite right, and

which helped her when she took on the challenge to have Ole Christian declared to have normal intelligence.

To capture silent knowledge, to estimate what experiences are out there but not easily measurable, is a priority for both Sweden and the Nordic region. The state-run Evaluation Delegation is one

example of a commitment to create a system to evaluate this kind of knowledge. Over a four year period, it will work mainly to promote the knowledge which exists within health care, and which often is gained through daily work – and hence difficult to describe in a CV.

The aim is to find a national standard for evaluation. Key words are quality, legitimacy and equality. People should not be evaluated in relation to time tables or whatever fits in with an existing system - on the contrary, it is what they know which should influence the system.

Another state project is called the Ladder of Competence. The three year project sees one billion kronor of state investment to help municipalities develop competence and activity within care for the elderly. At the same time, municipalities and county councils are developing local and regional learning centres. There has also been an increase in resources allocated to popular adult education, and more emphasis has been given to flexible online teaching. 

A changed working life

Adult education has many names and many arenas. It can be about heightening the level of basic education, further education within a specific occupation or to attend labour market oriented courses in order to match up to those jobs which are out there. Work place learning is an important part of this, and traditionally the social partners play an important role.

The state governs through legislation, economic support or through other incentives for learning, plus via monetary support for research and development.

The social partners' role is to agree on work organisation, employment conditions, salaries and more, as well as agreeing on questions regarding participation, job development and learning.

Sweden has long been characterised by the so-called "Saltsjöbad Spirit" - a co-operation between employers and unions which took shape as early as the 1930s, and contributed to a modernisation of industrial labour.

Today, the labour market looks different, and more and more people work in the service industry.

The co-operation between the social partners has also changed.

"In the public sector there are ambitions to create a new contract of co-operation, but in the private sector the co-operation is running into difficulties", says Kenneth Abrahamsson.

Major unions have different focus on working life learning. The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (SACO) talks about education accounts, and whether education pays. The

Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) focuses on work environment and working conditions within the communal sector, as well as occupational training in higher secondary

education. The Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO) takes an interest in competence accounts, says Kenneth Abrahamsson.

He feels Sweden has been at the forefront in Europe when it comes to development of labour organisation and learning; this shows up in international knowledge ratings. There is a strong

tradition for adult education and people's education. Many projects have been so-called fund projects. 

"We are now part of the European Social Fund, like many other countries. Sadly, we've not managed to develop any clear strategy for how the social fund should be used. The risk is that

the funds will be nothing but national sprinkler systems for a wild garden of a thousand small projects. There aren't many large and comprehensive programs today in addition to these projects, unlike the Finnish programme for productivity, or the Norwegian programme for value creation", says Kenneth Abrahamsson.

Three challenges

Competence and learning is basically a question of allocation, and is mainly about power and influence. Today there is a cold undercurrent of new, international trends of 'lean production'. At the same time the developing stage of work becomes more and more project-orientated, Kenneth Abrahamsson thinks. But he realises that it's difficult to stop this development for those who want to compete internationally.

"The first challenge is to protect a working life with a human face. In part this is about getting new groups into the labour market, and it is also about protecting the so-called good quality work.

Demands on people to master and develop the new technique will increase. We must also keep our heads up and make sure modern work does not become undermined, or that it drives employees

to self exploitation and burn-out in a leader-less landscape", says Kenneth Abrahamsson, adding that questions on gender equality and women's working conditions are of special importance.

The other challenge according to Kenneth Abrahamsson is to create an open and sustainable working life, to use Equal and the social funds' starting points – the growing human being, respectful relations and a working life for all free of discrimination. But this goal is not enough, he says. You must also take into account the production side, i.e. work is there in order to develop companies, products and services. Questions of quality in that respect and a working life with a human face simply belong together.

The third challenge is the double generation change. Production systems and businesses must be improved constantly. At the same time, because of an ageing population, working life must prepare to open up to groups who so far have had trouble getting in. That means youths, immigrants and older people.

"We must develop better strategies for age management, which build on dialogue between generations, the use of mentors, trainees and pedagogical solutions. To manage this, we need a more thought-through strategy for learning and for working life. We must use a learning perspective to look at labour organisation and working environments. We must also create new incentives for mobility and flexibility with a human face", he says.

Kenneth Abrahamsson is positive to a national strategy for learning, and points to several good international examples, like France. When that country introduced shorter working weeks, the French Agency for Improvement of Working Life (ANACT) was given the task to initiate a support programme for businesses and companies. The state financed half of the consulting costs incurred  by companies in order to get the change going. In Sweden we have a fear of consultancies, he claims. He wants to include consultancies in the work towards creating new togetherness and a new contract of co-operation for learning and a developing working life. We must try together, in small and big formats, new models and "best practice" for a modern, efficient working organisation with human labour.

"Let researchers, consultants, employers, the unions and entrepreneurs get together and create a framework for a broader development", says Kenneth Abrahamsson

He adds:

"We must not become too reliant on economical questions when developing motives for learning. People aren't simply small cogs in a larger system of production. We must also protect the human motives. Educational questions have their own raison d'être, far outside the factory gates, or the dusty office window.


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