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Globalisation gives life to new Nordic stories

| Text: Berit Kvam

How can Nordic countries better cooperate and become stronger in the face of global challenges? How can they join forces to increase growth and attract the right skills? Which initiatives are best to get people on the outside of the labour market into working life? Accelerating globalisation is changing the story of the Nordic region.

"It is really not said clearly enough just how tough the fight for human resources is going to be in the future," said Ole Petter Ottersen, the president of the University of Oslo. He highlighted the need for Nordic cooperation in the university sector during a globalisation conference in Copenhagen on 27 and 28 April organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Jon Kvist, a professor at the Centre for Welfare State Research at the University of Southern Denmark, told the conference about his take on the challenges the Nordic welfare state faces as a result of globalisation, an ageing population and increasingly heterogeneous populations. 

"In the face of new challenges the welfare state is in danger of becoming a patchwork, like a bucket of water which springs new leaks all the time and must be mended continuously. What we should do is make a new bucket with a sieve bottom which will spread the water evenly everywhere," said Jon Kvist.

The conference formed part of a process aimed at renewing the Nordic cooperation. It started with the meeting of prime ministers in Finland in 2007, and has resulted in a number of initiatives aimed at strengthening Nordic competitiveness in the global marketplace. The flagship initiative is the focus on climate and the environment. When it comes to working life issues, conditions for growth and how to recruit the right skills for the future take centre stage.

New and existing projects

The Copenhagen globalisation conference saw the launch of new projects as well as presentations of existing globalisation-linked initiatives in the areas of knowledge, health and welfare.  

"None of the large global challenges can be solved by one country alone, or by a single sector. We need to work together and find ways to cooperate which make everyone feel they are important to that cooperation," Gard Titlestad, head of department at the Nordic Council of Ministers, told the conference. 

There are several initiatives in the knowledge area, among them the Top-level Research Initiative, a major Nordic venture for climate, energy and the environment which started in 2008 with the aim to contribute towards solving the global climate crisis. There is also new cooperation between Nordic universities which includes a new Nordic Master Program. Other initiatives include the globalisation project 'Excellent training for young people and adults' which aims to build an information bank for good practice in this field.

There are several cross-sector cooperation projects within the working life area. One focuses on how to help the Nordic countries become bigger players in new and growing trades like nanotechnology, climate technology and computer games. Some of the aims are to identify growth sectors, analyse what is driving the growth, finding out which types of labour will be needed and how political frameworks - especially when it comes to work environment issues - can contribute to growth within these trades.  

Another project is looking at foreign labour in the Nordic region; practical steps for improving the recruitment of foreign labour and preventing social dumping, and how to actively use the Nordic countries' good working and welfare conditions to attract skilled labour.    

Denmark best at inclusion

The Nordic Centre of Welfare and Social Issues is already well into its project on vulnerable groups' inclusion into the labour market. "Everybody must be included" is beautiful rhetoric in the Nordic region. Meanwhile between 20 and 25 percent of all 20 to 65 year olds are on long term social benefits. The Nordic countries approach inclusion in different ways. The Nordic project aims to describe, compare and analyse how they manage to include vulnerable groups - like youths, people with physical handicaps and older people - into the labour market. The first progress report on measures to include youths is soon ready for publication, says project leader Bjørn Halvorsen, who highlights three findings based on the results found so far:

"The first finding deals with how we treat statistics. Norway can learn something here," he says and holds Denmark up as the good Nordic example. Denmark focuses on results and systematically follows up initiatives which have been introduced into various areas. Figures from all over the country are published online at where the effect of the various measures is analysed. The figures also allow people to compare how well initiatives work between different job centres. 

"Denmark is also good at tailoring initiatives, like individual follow-ups. The [Danish] National Labour Market Authority has a mandate to execute systematic and controlled trials to find out which types of initiatives work best. It turns out that much of what does work best is happening within companies. Norway is good at economic policies and general labour market policies, but not so good at inclusion. 

"Thirdly, it looks like the more you reduce the risk involved for employers and adapt initiatives to suit businesses, the easier it becomes to include people into ordinary companies. Norway has used the most resources on labour market enterprises, but these don't get many people into ordinary jobs," says Bjørn Halvorsen. 

His conclusion is that Denmark and Norway seem to be achieving the best results - Norway through its thorough policies while Denmark is slightly tougher when it comes to executing policies. One initiative which seems to be working well in Sweden is the so-called 'Nystartsjobb' - a scheme where employers get state subsidies to employ people who have been out of work for more than a year.

"The general impression is that it is important to have a bit more tailoring without completely getting rid of the general welfare state," says project leader Bjørn Halvorsen. He hopes these results can serve as an inspiration for policy development. 

Increased mobility among students

There are now 10,000 young Swedish workers in Oslo, according to numbers presented by Ole Petter Ottersen, but only 180 registered students. In order to increase mobility among students it is important to look after the competence by following up initiatives like the Nordic Master Program, he said, and got support from his Nordic colleagues. 

"We stand outside of Europe's major crossroads. Nordic cooperation will allow researchers a broader access to infrastructure, technology and expertise. Networks need to compensate for geographical distance, and Nordic networks can be gateways to European networks. We need to look at what is happening in the Nordic region as an opportunity to access different connections," said Ole Petter Ottersen, who also underlined the fact that universities are individual players. All renewal of the Nordic cooperation should therefore be based on exactly that - cooperation. There is no need to duplicate narrow national or European initiatives. What we need is generic initiatives.

A dynamic region

The Nordic prime ministers' starting point for the joint Nordic cooperation on globalisation has been to maintain a positive attitude to the challenges which globalisation presents to the Nordic region. The Nordic Council of Ministers wanted the Copenhagen globalisation conference to create a debate on how the Nordic region handles these challenges and for it to contribute to the visions of: "The Nordic region as a dynamic inner market for knowledge and innovation"; "The Nordic region as a leading partner in areas of economic growth"; "The Nordic region leading the way in the face of demographic challenges"; "The Nordic region as a leader within social and preventive health care work".   

International interest

"The Nordic model has attracted increased interest lately, not least because of the way Nordic countries dealt with and managed to get through the economic crisis. During the World Economic Forum 2011 the Nordic model was presented by looking at which principles, policies and driving forces are behind the Nordic countries' success. At best it was an advert for the Nordic model of yesterday," said head of department Gard Titlestad.

"How to secure growth and improve welfare in the face of accelerating globalisation is something which is continually developing."

The Nordic region has nearly 25 million citizens and its total GDP is so large that if the region was one country it could sit among the G20 countries. At the same time the Nordic countries are willing to invest only limited resources in cooperation:      

"The Nordic Council of Ministers' budget for meeting the challenges is nearly 900m DKK (€120m), of which 72m DKK (€9.6m) are earmarked globalisation initiatives. That's the same amount Iceland pays the EU to take part in the Union's 7th Framework Programme on research," said Gard Titlestad.


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