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Former EU commissioner Nielson wants radical Nordic reforms

Former EU commissioner Nielson wants radical Nordic reforms

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, photo: Laura Kotila

The Nordic labour market is facing challenges which can not be solved through minor changes. That was the message from Poul Nielson as he presented his 14 proposals for radical reforms.

Over the past year, Poul Nielson, a former Danish politician and EU commissioner, has traveled around the Nordic countries to talk to more than a hundred politicians, civil servants and labour market experts. His task? To create a basis for Nordic strategic decisions. Nielson has high ambitions. Digitisation, immigration and new forms of work are but some of the issues which are making the labour market less stable and more unpredictable. 

“We must think outside of the box,” he said as he presented the report in Helsinki, and asked for no less than a radical reform equal to the one which created the common Nordic labour market in 1954. 

One of the challenges is how to maintain and raise the high skills level. This is what Nielson spent the most time addressing. 

“It’s a long time since we gave children the right to compulsory education. Now we need to give adults the right to compulsory further education,” he said.

In some area, like in the academic world, continuous education is a given. Nielson pointed to the fact that large social groups do not enjoy the same opportunity to build on their skills. There is also no common system – the access to further training and education is governed by collective agreements or other agreements which don not encompass everybody. Nielson backed his proposals with economic arguments: Better training and education leads to higher economic growth. 

“The aim should be to increase the lowest level; there is a lot of money to be gained from that.”

Finland’s Minster for Labour Jari Lindström, who heads the Council of Ministers’ committee for labour during the Finnish Presidency, was largely positive to Nielson’s proposals, except on this point. Lindström associated the term compulsory with enforcement.

“I don’t like the word enforcement,” he said. Instead he preferred a phrase about measures which are ‘of benefit’ to individuals. 

Lindström pointed out that it is Finland’s aim to have the best labour market in Europe by 2020, and that much of what Nielson highlights, like a psychologically balanced labour market with focus on the well-being of the workers, is part of their strategy. But according to Lindström you cannot force people who are not of an academic nature to take further education. 

“They might be fantastic with their hands instead,” he said, and held up training through apprenticeships as a way of supporting them.

The proposal for mandatory further training and education gets caught up in a Finnish political dispute where the government, strongly influenced by the populist Finns Party, has been accused of being anti-education. Severe cuts in state funding of universities and schools have come parallel with statements which have been seen by many as displaying contempt for higher education.

On the other side, Nokia’s chairman of the board Risto Siilasmaa, one of Finland’s most senior businessmen, recently expressed his worry that the country’s skills level was not sufficiently maintained. He proposed an expiry date for exams, and demands for regular updating of peoples’ knowledge. This means everyone should return to the classroom for at least three months every five years. Those who fail to update their skills risk having their degrees disqualified. This is already the case for many occupations, especially where safety is a major factor. For many, like consultants or programmers, it is absolutely necessary to stay au jour, but the demand far from covers everyone.

Siilasmaa’s proposal was immediately questioned by the social partners, since he failed to explain how such a reform would be financed. Poul Nielson says the financing of mandatory further training and education must be possible to solve.

“The Nordic countries have after all created their workplace pension systems,” he pointed out, and believes the social partners quite easily should be able to find a solution where the state contribution makes up part of the financing. 

“A less ambitious model could be based on developing the existing systems,” Nielson said, yet made it clear that ambitions should be higher than that. He proposed that the Nordic countries begin various experiments with further training and education which can be assessed by experts and lead to joint reforms.

When Nielson’s commission was made public in April 2015, it was said that his proposals should lead to “binding cooperation”. The Nordic Council of Ministers has no power to force member countries to cooperate. Nielson said that there are many kinds of binding agreements, and mentioned the UN development programme UNDP, where the Human Development Report sets targets which the Nordic countries must relate to. He envisages something similar now.

Nielson’s report is described as “scrutinising” and is the third in a row of such Nordic reports – previous ones have looked at Nordic defence and security cooperation and the health sector. The report will now be the topic for debate at a range of Nordic meetings and will lead to strategic policies.

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

Poul Nielson's report
was presented to Finnish Minister of Labour Jari Lindström (left), representing the Finnish Presidency. On the right: Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers

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