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Can continuously learning save Finland’s future competences needs?

Can continuously learning save Finland’s future competences needs?

| Text: Marcus Floman, photo: Mikko Raskinen

In Finland, experts are looking at education policies and more for solutions to the future labour market’s challenges. A government-appointed panel has presented its first report, ‘Ett ständigt lärande Finland’ (Finland – a country of continuous learning) – which has been subject to criticism from trade unions for being light on concrete measures.

The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s so-called Future Competences Panel wants to turn the educational system into an engine for a country which wants to make continuous learning central to its future development. 

Anne Brunila, Professor of Practice at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, heads the panel.

“We must all learn how to become better at learning,” says Brunila. 

This ability, being better at always learning new things, is not only meant for people in the labour market. The concept already exists in the Finnish school curriculum. 

How does technology change the need for skills?

The Future Competences Panel has been tasked with presenting visions, proposals and bases for decisions for Finland’s education policies. One of the panel’s main focus areas is how new and developing technologies determine what kinds of competences will be in demand in the future.    

The panel was established in the autumn of 2017, yet has so far not presented many results. Its first publication, a 14 pages long document, generally lists which trends the labour market will probably be facing going forward. It also presents the outline of what the group hopes will become a reform for a continuously learning Finland.

Anne Brunila knows that many changes ought to happen sooner rather than later, since the pace of development is so rapid. Brunila believes Finland has a good starting point, since its elementary, vocational and higher education systems have already been through major reforms. She considers this to be forward-thinking in light of what the future labour market needs.

Flexibility is needed

“One thing is clear: Future employees will need to be very flexible. Luckily it will be possible in future to increase your knowledge in many different ways. We already have a situation within a whole range of sectors where you can secure competences through other means than an exam.”

So what responsibility does the state have when workers keep facing demands for continuously learning new skills?

“We will need changes on a legislative level both within the social benefit system and in the taxation system, allowing people an opportunity to study.”

In most cases a person who gets a new education or trains to work in a completely new sector has to go back to studying in the middle of his or her career. How will people afford to go back to being students, and survive on less money?

“The entire social benefit system is in need of a review – we have to create a system which encourages and makes it possible to retrain. For instance, the support for adult education must be renewed – the current support system is out of date.”

Existing legislation says you will have had to have worked for eight years within the same trade in order to qualify for that support. 

“We need more flexibility on that point. The worst case scenario is if a person who has just passed an exam experiences that developments have overtaken his or her competences, which are then already out of date.”

What are the obstacles?

The working group’s tasks include gathering all relevant knowledge within the area, and it should also point to what legislation, sociopolitical and education political sectors will be affected.

“Our task is to gather information on what are the current obstacles to continuous learning.”

Professor Anne Brunila also believes there is a need for a change in attitudes. 

“We need to start thinking like this: The fact that we have passed an exam or entered a profession cannot be a guarantor for us being able to stay and work in a particular trade for the rest of our careers. Upgrading our competences is an elementary part of being able to work.

Do you on the Future Competences Panel put too much responsibility on the individual, expecting people themselves to be fully responsible for maintaining their competences?

“I don’t think so. We need to share the responsibility so that the education system and companies also take some of it, just like the voluntary sector and individuals. But if we are to succeed in our reform work, we also need legislative changes.”

Trade union criticism

Janne Hernesniemi, education policy expert at JHL, Finland’s main trade union representing the welfare sector, is critical to the panel’s first document.

“This was an abstract document relatively weak on content. I did not find any new observations or initiatives for the changing labour market in the group’s report,” says Hernesniemi.

Janne Hernesniemi is surprised the Future Competences Panel has not used their first report to address the issue of learning difficulties and the fact that people have different preconditions for learning new things, that people learn at different speeds.

“It feels like they have had a very competent and progressive person in mind when writing the document. A person who has no problem planning his or her career and who manages to stick to that plan.”

An individual responsibility

NLJ also asked Anna Brunila about the individual’s responsibility.

How will those workers who are not able or lack the energy to retrain, manage to secure new competences? 

“We need more advisory services directed at people who need support and help.”

Janne Hernesniemi at the JHL trade union wants to see more focus on which obstacles might present themselves in the future labour market.

“I think many of the obstacles will be linked to various levels of being able to learn new things. There are many employees who are very motivated and competent, but who might fall at the first hurdle in a new job because they struggle to renew their knowledge.”

Janne Hernesniemi believes it is very important to develop society’s educational and sociopolitical support so that people are really given a fair chance to train during their entire working life, and will be able to get a new occupation when needed. The opportunity to get adult education support should be given to both employees and the unemployed. 

“In recent years the current government has made cuts to the existing study support and the adult education support, so in this area things have been moving in the wrong direction in Finland. These savings are completely counterproductive in the light of what you might expect from the changes in society and in the labour market.”

The Future Competences Panel’s role is not to present political law proposals, but to present initiatives and prepare the ground for future political decisions.

The panel, led by Anne Brunila, will continue its work for one more year. The group has been put together but the current centre-right government, and its mandate runs until spring 2019.

“With the help of a system where education and further training can be offered in a flexible way, supported by new models of how to finance the education support, we should be able to face the future challenges. We will spend the time until spring 2019 to get into the concrete issues,” says Anne Brunila.

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