Even though the Nordic countries show marked similarities in terms of socioeconomic and social conditions, there is much that separates them. Welfare policy ambitions may be similar, but when we examine the conditions for youths to establish themselves in the labour market and earn a living, we find significant variations. Youths face considerably less favourable labour market conditions in Finland and Sweden than in the other Nordic countries.
In our study called “Youth, education and labour market in the Nordic countries – similar but not the same” our aim has been to analyse these differences between the countries against the background of variations in institutional conditions in the field of education and labour market policy. We found that upper secondary school education shows clear differences between the countries. Finland and Sweden offer mainly school based vocational training programmes. The other countries offer apprenticeship training linked to a regulated system of trade licences.
Apprenticeship training offers no guarantee of a high rate of completion. We found, for instance, that non-completion problems in Danish apprenticeship training are very large compared to in Finland, despite Finland having a school based and academically more demanding vocational training system. While the results in Sweden may be negatively affected by the high proportion of students with immigrant background, this is by no means the only reason why completion problems appear to be especially large in Sweden. One factor which helps to mitigate problems in Denmark, Finland and Norway compared to Sweden is the availability of more multifaceted training options at various levels. These countries also have no upper age limit – or time limit – for upper secondary studies; the rule is that everyone has a right to complete an education. More extensive efforts are made to prepare students for upper secondary school studies, partly through an optional supplementary year, while follow-up of those who drop out of school is also more extensive and action orientated.
This is also linked to the orientation and extent of labour market policy. In real terms Sweden allocates fairly modest resources for special youth measures in the framework of labour market policy. This is reflected not only in higher youth unemployment, but also in a higher level of inactivity among young adults. While e.g. Denmark activates unemployed and poorly educated individuals through various education programmes, long-term unemployment and social assistance dependence is more common among youth in Sweden. We also found that Sweden differs from the other Nordic countries by having a more rigid demarcation between the standard education system and labour market policy measures. In Sweden, standard education is in principle not permitted within the framework of labour market policy. This makes labour market policy measures less flexible and limit the possibilities of offering initial vocational training to young adults.
The clearest differences are between Denmark and Sweden. Vocational training and labour market policy in Denmark is based on coordination, individual adaptation and generous funding conditions. Educational measures and labour market policy in Sweden are on the other hand characterised by a division of responsibility between school, labour exchange and social services, strict demarcations between standard education and youth measures, and an emphasis on general or academically orientated upper secondary school education.
The question remains whether anything can be said about the effectiveness of these different strategies. While we have no foundation for a definitive assessment, we nevertheless wish to formulate a few suggestions based on conditions in Sweden:
- Swedish measures for unemployed and inactive youth would benefit from closer coordination between different actors: the school (introductory programmes), labour exchange and social services. The unclear distribution of responsibility makes the measures less effective.
- Initial vocational training in various forms and at different levels should be offered in the framework of the Swedish upper secondary school. General university admission should not be the obvious goal of all education programmes.
- More opportunities must be created for young adults (over age 20) to participate in initial vocational training. At present this option is essentially missing. Most vocational training programmes offered to this age group, such as Higher Vocational Training, are at the post-secondary level.
- The demarcation between labour market policy and standard education should be re-examined. Distribution fairness and effectiveness motives speak for a more flexible use of the available labour market policy resources.
Researchers seem essentially to agree that transition patterns from adolescence to adult life and from school to working life have changed in recent decades. The pattern is not only more protracted. Transition is not as linear or fixed as before. The process is characterised by upward and downward leaps. The problem is that measures implemented within the education system, as within labour market policy, are insufficiently adapted to these changes. Activation policy characterised by coercion and focused on jobs is an example of a one-sided policy that has no room for individually tailored measures, nor allows the individual to participate and influence the nature of the measure. Also, a job may not always be the most desirable goal. On the contrary, a measure leading to a menial job may reduce the individual’s possibility of developing and earning a living in the longer term.
In other words, there is a need to keep many doors open. Narrow measures and narrow training closes doors and limits the options. It is for instance often said that apprenticeship training hardly provides the prerequisites that are needed today. However, we should avoid to strain the arguments. One conclusion of our study is that a variety of measures are needed. Individual tailoring is essential. Initial vocational training of an academically less qualified nature may very well lead to opportunities. The contact with working life provides a significant first experience and may have a great impact on self-confidence. In addition, apprenticeship training offers a wage-earning opportunity to groups who often come from socially less privileged environments.
Vocational training and labour market policy can be of critical importance by compensating for differences in the social background of youth and young adults. From the Swedish standpoint the problem appears to be that the changes implemented in recent years with regard to vocational training and labour market policy have tended to limit the possibilities both of training and labour market policy in this respect.