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Danish Activation Centres provide link to working life

Danish Activation Centres provide link to working life

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

There's no better place to train for working life than in a workplace. That's the basic idea of Denmark's new Activation Centres. They work with the most challenging group of unemployed people, yet results are good. David Andersen is supported by his mentor Tina Andersen at the Kvickly supermarket.

It's not easy to spot the crisis in the city of Middelfart, a couple of hours on the train west of Copenhagen. The municipality works for green growth and has just secured agreement with an energy provider to bury an electricity cable under the strait of Lillebælt. It means they can get rid of twelve kilometres of electricity pylons. In neighbouring Norway there is a heated debate on the potential construction of so-called 'monster masts' across the picturesque Hardanger fjord.

You can easily see parallels but also differences when you move between Nordic Countries. Where's Middelfart's graffiti? Everything seems almost too clean.


When we visit the Middelfart job centre we immediately notice the difference in language. Here there's no talk of 'customers' or 'users' - they call them citizens. People included in the new labour market measure Activation Centres are called candidates. They get work training in the workplace.

Nearly four years ago Middelfart was part of a pilot project aimed at getting people on benefit back into work. The economic climate was quite different then - Denmark's labour market was desperate for people. There was both time and money to target the weakest of the unemployed: people with physical or psychological problems, drug misusers and those who'd been out of work for more than twenty years.

"A large number from this group fell off during the so-called 'potato cure' at the end of the 1980s, when the government tightened the noose at the same time as the traditional potato harvest began. We still have a few 35 to 40 year olds from that time who has never worked," says Per Rasmussen, head of the job centre.

Most challenging group

Per Rasmussen

The pilot project is targeting the job centre's most challenging group of all. Nevertheless there has been remarkable progress.

One in five candidates either started studying or found a job which would make them independent from social security after a three month long work training programme. To be precise: 12.5 percent got a proper job, 2.5 percent found a flexjob (where wages are partly subsidised by the state) and 4 percent began studying. 

"The result is better than for any other project, and the National Labour Market Authority shouted Hallelujah," says Per Rasmussen.

Kirsten Lebæk and Jeanette Johansen have been responsible for the project at the job centre. They outline some of the framework, explaining the most important thing was that work training happened in a workplace and not on a job centre course. The difference between being part part of a workforce sharing tasks, a uniform and social activities instead of belonging to a group of 15 other unemployed is crucial.

Not all workplaces are suitable for the project, however.Jeanette Johansen

"We started out with six companies, among them a major cleaning company. That did not work. But we've cooperated from the very beginning with the remaining workplaces," says Jeanette Johansen.

Companies should be able to accommodate at least four candidates from the weakest group among the unemployed. Each candidate is prescribed a mentor who'll be responsible for everything that happens in the workplace. The job centre will always be dealing with the same person as the Activation Centre. The job consultant visits the company once a week to talk to both the candidate and the mentor about progress.

Workplace support important

Companies get a small sum to compensate for providing mentors from some of their staff. A company with five candidates would receive DKK 88.000 (€11.800)a year.

"But companies aren't in it for the money. They want to strengthen their social profile. Employees get new challenges and the chance to develop, and cooperation with the job centre is improved too," says Kirsten Lebæk. Kirsten Lebæk

We meet representatives from three of the companies that take part in the project - a hotel, an old people's home and the supermarket chain Kvickly. They all emphasise the importance of informing other employees about the project and keeping them positive to the exercise.

"It's important that all employees are involved and feel it is a good idea. This is not about free labour. It's a social exercise which takes as much as it gives," says Ole Jakobsen, the manager of a Kvickly branch with 135 employees.

It is, of course, positive when many manage to find a job after the three month period at an Activation Centre (this can be extended a maximum of four times), yet the programme is first and foremost work training. It is also considered a success if an unemployed person gradually manages to extend his or her working hours, or manage to turn up on time and handle new challenges. 

Ole Jacobsen"It is also important to agree in advance on realistic expectations and to agree on how to solve the challenge," says Ole Jakobsen.

We meet him in his office at Kvickly with candidate David Andersen and mentor Tina Andersen to hear how things work in real life. David is 28 and has taken part in many labour market measures before. He has psychological problems and gets easily stressed. But he is happy at Kvickly and works well with his mentor Tina.

"We work together and do the same jobs. We stack shelves and find the goods that are needed. David has initiative but I quickly notice when he gets stressed. It often happens on Fridays when we have a lot of customers. We can then find something to do in storage instead," says Tina Andersen.

Tina and David

"I have worked in a laundry, as an unqualified welder and as a hospital porter. But I would love to keep working in a shop when I have to leave Kvickly," says David Andersen.

The workload is not a challenge, but his psychological state is.

"But I feel things go much better now, don't you think, David? The darker days are further and further between, aren't they?" says Tina and David nods in agreement.

"I am very content," he says.

Not everybody's private friend

Tina Andersen says she loves to meet new people and to work with them, but that she had problems to begin with drawing a line between private and working life. 

"I thought I could be everybody's friend, but it's better now. I manage to separate the two roles. We've run the mentor programme here at Kvickly for four years now, but the company has been involved with providing work for people on social benefit for fifteen years."

Make sure the candidate develops

The job centre is responsible for making sure the candidate doesn't get stuck in the same routine. There needs to be focus on development. They use a standardised scoring system which helps them and the candidate assess how things are going. It rates how well the candidate solves the task in hand, how stable he or she is and how flexible. 

"What's important is not whether we write 1 or 5, but whether there has been improvement on the week before," says Kirsten Lebæk.

"It's also important to focus on what is positive. Both the candidate and the mentor needs a lot of praise," she says.

But the job centre can also chose to withdraw its support if the candidate doesn't fulfil his or her obligations. 


Facts on Activation Centres

Activation Centres are Danish workplaces that have agreed to cooperate with job centres on training in the workplace.

This year saw the launch of a two-year campaign with two ambitious goals:

  1. Each month 9.000 people on social benefit or so-called start support (for immigrants) should enter training in the workplace.
  2. 20 percent of the participants should be able to make their own living four weeks after training has ended.

People eligible for workplace training are people who lack qualifications, language or social skills and who therefore have difficulty finding normal employment.


Lillebæltbro Facts about Middelfart

ShieldMiddelfart municipality on the Lillebælt strait has a population of 35.000. It's situated within the so-called Triangle which consists of six municipalities in cooperation. Together they have a population of 350.000.

Middelfart's municipal shield features a jumping porpoise, reflecting the whaling history of the area.

Today Middlefart's varied industry features many smaller companies, but no one dominating industry. Middelfart comes under Employment Region Syddanmark.

Unemployment is 3 percent.



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