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Poul Nielson: Introduce mandatory adult education and further training in the Nordics
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Poul Nielson: Introduce mandatory adult education and further training in the Nordics

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Laura Kotila

The five Nordic countries should make adult education and further training a mandatory element of the labour market, and introduce real cooperation on migration. These are central issues to secure the Nordic labour market model for future years, recommends a new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The Nordic labour market model faces a plethora of threats, and there are plenty of reasons why cooperation to secure the model should be intensified, says the report ‘Working life in the Nordic region – challenges and proposals’, which former Danish government minister and EU Commissioner Poul Nielson has written on commission from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Training for all

In it he presents a total of 14 proposals for how to strengthen the cooperation on securing Nordic citizens a good working life. Poul Nielson freely admits that some of the proposals are fairly wide-ranging. One is for Nordic governments to make training a completely systematic and integrated part of working life. The governments should agree to the principle that adult education and in-service training will be a mandatory element of working life for everyone in the Nordic labour markets, and then work with the social partners to create two basic models in an attempt to make this vision a reality. 

This would be a visionary decision, says Poul Nielson in the report, and writes that in order  “to prepare ourselves for the future we need to think out of the box”.

He is well aware that the proposal will face resistance on many fronts. He expects many misgivings, conflicts of interest and not least major difficulties when it comes to the allocation of costs and rights. This should not deter the countries, however. Poul Nielson points out that the creation of the common Nordic labour market in 1954 was not a routine decision either, and he is convinced that mandatory adult education and further training for all could lift the Nordic countries into a winning position in the global competition, and should therefore be tried out.

“Just as the Nordic countries were in the forefront in 1954 with the creation of a joint labour market, today we ought to be in the forefront in meeting the challenges of the future,” he writes.

More cooperation on migration

In the report, Poul Nielson describes a Nordic labour market cooperation with room for improvement. It started well with the Convention Concerning a Common Nordic Labour Market of 1954. That was a progressive decision that has contributed to growth and employment in our countries, Poul Nielson writes. But he thinks there has not been enough measures aimed at harmonisation and integration in the Nordic region in the various areas of working life over the last 20 years.

Inaction is a serious problem, according to Poul Nielsen, who sees threats from many fronts. One threat, which is specifically mentioned in the report, is the pressure which refugees and migration put on the Nordic labour market model. Poul Nielsen puts aside his otherwise diplomatic language when describing the Nordic governments’ ability to cooperate on refugee and immigration issues:

“Seen from the outside, the way the governments of the Nordic countries have handled the problem has not strengthened the picture of the Nordic region as an entity that stands out with close, well-coordinated cooperation,” he writes.

As an example he mentioned the fact that the Nordic countries as a group have not contributed to finding a joint EU solution in the shape of an efficiently administered joint European refugee and immigration policy.

Immigration can end up being a positive resource in our societies only if there is a common will and ability to meet these challenges, based on the values at the core of the Nordic model, thinks Poul Nielson, who continues: “All the indications” are that it is better to provide newly arrived people with early participation in working life, combined with language training, rather than having them spend several years preparing for working life.

"Learning by doing is a good motto for the integration effort,” he writes. He proposes that the Council of Ministers create a working group which should provide ongoing joint analysis and present proposals for a more substantial and active joint Nordic political effort in this area.

Joint rules for the psychosocial working environment

The working environment is another growing labour market challenge, which according to Poul Nielson calls for stronger Nordic cooperation. It is necessary to increase efforts to improve working environments, if quality of life is to be maintained at the workplace as people retire later, technology develops faster and global competition grows, he points out. The psychosocial working environment is particularly ripe for improvement – it needs more recognition, more research and more political focus, he thinks. 

He proposes that the Nordic countries try to harmonise their legislation in the area and improve their coordination of activities while giving priority to projects which are of joint interest. 

Hybrid organisation

The fragmentation of the labour market is a third tendency which already represents a challenge to the Nordic labour markets, thinks Poul Nielson, who points out that fewer employees choose to be members of traditional trade unions, while employees use more temporary and short-term staff and there is easier access to foreign labour.   

There are also problems getting businesses from new sectors and large, independent groups to become members of employers’ organisations, writes Poul Nielson. This fragmentation represents a joint challenge for the organisations on both sides of the labour market when it comes to maintaining their central roles in the Nordic labour market model, and the Nordic countries should support the organisations in finding more flexible organisation models.  

The report does not spell out how to do this, but recommends that government ministers discuss it and produce a list of ideas for use in efforts both in the Nordic region and internationally to adapt to the demands faced as a result of the fragmentation of working life. 

Improved debates

As a seasoned parliamentarian, Poul Nielson also has some recommendations for how the Nordic ministers of labour can enjoy even better political debates when they meet at the Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour (MR-A). He suggests making the meetings between ministers a “good club” rather than “an over-formalised meeting machine”. 

”The way to increase the political relevance of the MR-A is to make participating in this cooperation an attractive, meaningful and necessary part of the ministers’ use of their time,” he writes, and adds that meaningful and jointly prepared briefings for the ministers are necessary, as well as “a degree of boldness”.

While strongly appealing for increased Nordic labour market cooperation, Poul Nielson is also full of praise for the comprehensive and multifaceted network of relations on many levels which he sees in the Nordic cooperation in the working life area.

“On all levels – ministers, the committees of senior officials, the labour market organisations, the relevant administrative branches related to the labour market and university researchers – exchanges of experience and informal and direct forms of co-operation have been emphasised as being amongst the most important and valuable elements,” he writes.

Poul Nielson also suggests a more active approach in Nordic labour market cooperation when it comes to relations with the outside world. He suggests that the Nordic labour ministers organise stronger joint branding of the core of the Nordic labour market model both in the EU Commission, the Parliament, during meetings of ministers and in the social dialogue with the EU. The Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour should also intensify its cooperation with the ILO and reprioritise the Nordic region’s cooperation in the OECD, he writes.

Read more: Former EU commissioner Nielson wants radical Nordic reforms

New strategic analysis: Working Life in the Nordic region: Challenges and proposals 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poul Nielson,
former Danish government minister and EU commissioner. On the left: Finnish Minister of Labour Jari Lindström
FACTS about the report ‘Working life in the Nordic region – challenges and proposals’

Poul Nielson

Prepared for the Nordic Council of Ministers by former Danish government minister and EU commissioner Poul Nielson.

Built on more than 100 conversations with ministers, members of parliament, civil servants, researchers, representatives for employers and trade unions across the Nordic region. Nielson has also had meetings at the EU Commission, the European Parliament, with European think tanks, the ILO and the OECD. He has also read the minutes from several years worth of ministerial meetings.

Does not go into the particular conditions of the public sector.

The report is the third of its kind on a Nordic level. The first one was the so-called Stoltenberg report on the potential for defence and security cooperation between Nordic countries (2009), written by the former Norwegian minister of defence and foreign affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg. The Könberg report, which analyses the Nordic health sector (2014), was written by the former Swedish minister of social affairs Bo Könberg.

The report’s 14 proposals for strengthened Nordic labour market cooperation:


  1. Fewer border obstacles. Nordic governments to support a joint Nordic examination of solutions to border obstacles for citizens concerned.

  2. Political cooperation on migration. A more substantial and active pan-Nordic political effort to face the challenges refugees and migration present to the Nordic labour market model. A special working group under the Council of Ministers should provide ongoing analysis and proposals for initiatives.

  3. Better labour market statistics. Nordic governments should set up a steering group to secure quality and compatibility with support and coordination from the Secretariat of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

  4. Stronger Nordic cooperation on working environments. The Council of Ministers should decided to upgrade the efforts regarding the psychosocial working environment and investigate the possibilities for harmonising legislation in the area, discuss enhanced Nordic participation in and shaping of the work in the EU’s expert committees in the working environment area. Ministers should exchange experiences on the inspection of the working environment.

  5. The gender equality issue should be prioritised in a fully horizontal manner in cooperation on working life.

  6. A list of ideas for how to handle the fragmentation both in the Nordic region and internationally.

  7. Mandatory adult education and continuing training for all in the Nordic region. Nordic government should commit to this and test two models together with the social partners.

  8. The particular challenges for job creation in the western Nordic region should be studied and undergo political debate.

  9. More thematic political debates between Nordic labour ministers based on presentations produced in broader cooperation.

  10. Strengthened preparation of meetings. The Secretariat of the Nordic Council of Ministers gets a more substantive, initiating and coordinating role in the preparation of ministerial meetings.

  11. More money for more ambitious cooperation. Governments must secure financing of a more ambitious Nordic cooperation on the working life area.

  12. Joint branding in the EU. Nordic labour ministers should organise a stronger joint branding of the core of the Nordic labour market model – on Commission, Parliament and Council levels.

  13. Cooperate with the ILO. The Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour intensifies cooperation with the ILO on improved labour market statistics internationally and knowledge of the Nordic model.

  14. The Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour should upgrade the Nordic region’s cooperation with the OECD.

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