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Successful vocational training for long-term unemployed in the Arctic

Successful vocational training for long-term unemployed in the Arctic

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

The Arctic Vocational Foundation is a joint Nordic institution providing individualised training within more than 30 vocations to unemployed Finns, Swedes and Norwegians. This, is where Sweden’s Minister for Employment Hillevi Engström invited her Nordic colleagues and working life representatives to consultations. What makes this training so special?

Why did you want to invite your colleagues to just this place?

“I have been fascinated by the way they educate people in four different languages in so many vocations. New students are enrolled as soon as someone has completed his studies. Every student is given a completely individual study plan which takes into account each individual’s qualification, so that one person might stay for six months while another needs a year to learn the same thing. This flexibility is particularly interesting I think,” Hillevi Engström told the Nordic Labour Journal. 

The students we met before the ministers’ visit shared that sentiment:

“What’s good with studying here is that I can follow my own tempo,” said a young Norwegian man who had dropped out of upper secondary school and now wanted to finish his education.

“What’s so good is that I can follow my own study plan and sit exams as I learn new things,” a young Finn said.

“Here you need to use your own initiative and study a lot if you want to understand and learn things, so you need both motivation and self discipline,” said a slightly older Swede who was sat reading a large IT manual in English. The course’s flexibility meant he could commute between the school and his hometown where he was looking after his poorly mother.

Every year 500 students go through this school. Everyone of them gets an individually tailored study plan and gain skills in line with Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish educational systems. They are young school leavers, long-term unemployed who need retraining because of ill health and injury, or because of changes to their industry, and there are unemployed people with higher education. The average age is 37, with people ranging in age from 20 to 60 plus. Last year an unemployed 62 year old took a course in programming. He now has a permanent job in Sundsvall, one of the teachers says. 

Popular IT course

Dan Robin Einvik from Honningsvåg in Norwegian Lofoten was a fisherman and worked on a fishing boat when he damaged his back. He was on sick leave for a year and received work assessment allowance the following year. He had not finished his upper secondary education which made it harder to enter the labour market. Then his local job centre offered him a space at the Arctic Vocational Foundation. Here he can finish his upper secondary education and train in computers.

“I have always been interested in computers, he says and smiles contentedly.

He is exercising, has gained good friends in a very social environment and he meets a lot of different people from different backgrounds, he says. The school is also part of the EU’s Leonardo da Vinci programme and exchanges students with vocational schools in five countries.

“I finish my course on 2 December, and will move to wherever I get a job. Away from the coast is totally OK with me,” says Dan Robin, the man from Norway’s beautiful Lofoten coastline. He thinks change is a good thing.

“You can’t find what this place offers anywhere else”, another student pointed out. This is what we call tailored education, says Sture Troli, head of  the Arctic Vocational Foundation:

“It means we take into account the baggage each individual student carries with them.”

Since 2011 the school has developed its own skills validation system. It builds on the teachers’ own experiences after working for many years at the Arctic Vocational Foundation. 

Validation is a system for measuring skills

“Based on the teachers’ experiences we have developed a comprehensive system which all teachers now use to map and document each individual student’s skills and background. That creates the basis for an individually tailored teaching plan for each individual pupil.

By the end of the year Sture Troli believes the Arctic Vocational Foundation will have a fully developed model. They will then be able to map and document each individual person’s skills, regardless of background, where they come from or whether they speak Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish. This is a service they can then offer labour market authorities, businesses and others, and at a lower cost than existing services on the market.

Economy is a challenge. Vocational training costs more than other educations. Today the different countries’ labour market authorities purchase a set number of places. Sweden has ordered 145, Norway 60 and Finland 80 places, but the school would like to have even more students.

“It goes without saying. We run courses in four different languages, three Nordic ones and English. We run three different curriculums. We run training in our localities and at the same time we oversee internships. We work closely with local businesses so it is relatively simple for the students to find internships. When they do, the teachers maintain contact with both the students and the businesses in order to secure good cooperation.

“And unlike other schools, we have a running intake of new students. As soon as one student has finished his or her training, a new one comes in to take up that space. In this way we are running things on different levels all the time.”

Focus on youth

“We now see a greater focus on unemployed youths in Nordic countries. It is something quite different than working with older workers who have been outside of the labour market for a long time. I guess you could say we have to teach students how to get up in the morning. We need to teach them social skills so that they understand what is means to function in a workplace. We spend eight weeks to get each student to adapt to the reality in a workplace.”

How do you manage to engage the students who left school because they were bored?

“We teach learning by doing,” says Sture Troli.

“People who have fallen outside of the system hate the formal school, but they are very keen to learn. They want to learn. When students come to us they have to work. After a while they realise that if they want to understand more of this they have to start reading. So we start with practical learning first. When students come into the workplace they begin to understand that if they want to be part of it they need to study on their own.”

Sture Troli is disappointed over how hard it is to get understanding for how much providing vocational education costs. 

“The education authorities have always found it hard to understand that it is much more expensive to run vocational training compared to traditional education. It is very popular to make cuts to vocational educations because they are expensive, but it affects quality. You won’t get students who are good enough when they go into internships, and they end up unemployed.” 

More information about vocational educations needed

Karin Ekanger from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise wants to see more information on the specialised skills that the Arctic Vocational Foundation deliver.

“What I see as a potential for improvement is to spread knowledge about which courses lead to very good results. I believe the main thing to learn from this example is that we need a general system in each country which demonstrates which types of education providers offer training which leads to work.”

Christina Colclough, the General Secretary at the Council of Nordic Trade Unions, is impressed with the broad level of skills coming out of the school.

“I think this is a fantastic place. Not only does it provide skills tailored to the individual. It also gives cross-cultural understanding. People travel from far away to train here. That means they also learn to move around to where the jobs are, and they have the courage to do it. So this is about more than the skills they officially gain from the school, it is about everything surrounding it.

“It is great to see Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish people working together and with people from different cultures who you also find here. Very inspiring. Something which can be developed. The director, Sture Troli, said they would like to grow, but they have limited resources. It is a shame when what they are doing is so successful.”

So would Hillevi Engström follow up the school’s challenging economic situation on a Nordic level?

“We have regular follow ups. Each country has its representatives on the board, so we take that debate at home in the individual countries. That is important.

“We need money, the director said. What do you tell him?”

“We have just signed a new agreement and I have no intention for this training to disappear,” says Sweden’s Minister for Labour Hillevi Engström.

The Arctic Vocational Foundation
  • Offers education in around 30 different vocation for jobseekers and businesses in Finland, Norway and Sweden.
  • The courses are tailored to the individual and are recognised in the different countries.
  • Training takes place in four languages.
  • The Arctic Vocational Foundation is part of the EU’s Leonardo da Vinci programme, and cooperates with vocational schools in five different countries
  • The courses focus on learning by doing, with the support of competent staff.
  • Teaching takes place in Övertorneå and Hedenäset in Sweden.
  • At Övertorneå, The Arctic Vocational Foundation offers courses within IT, economy, electrician training, refrigeration, sheet metal and ventilation systems, CNC and robot systems, car mechanics, restaurant and professional kitchens and health.
  • At Hedenäset people can study joinery and construction and hairdressing
  • The Arctic Vocational Foundation began providing labour market education in 1970. After an organisational change in 1992 it changed to The Arctic Vocational Foundation and a board with two board members from each country was established. The running of the foundation is regulated by four year agreements between the three countries.

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