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VET: The Other Side of Finland's System

Jobs for the Future Vice President and Senior Advisor Nancy Hoffman's recent book, Schooling in the Workplace, describes six national vocational education systems.  But it does not include Finland, though the quality of Finland's compulsory schools is now legendary.  Hoffman was curious—did the high quality of Finnish schools translate into good outcomes for Finnish youth, in particular for the 50 percent who choose the vocational system rather than university?  We interview her to find out [this updated version posted 9/4/13].

Marc Tucker: What do you think the Finn's ambitions are for their VET system?
Nancy Hoffman: First, bear in mind that I only had four or five days in Finland to learn about a very complex system.  With that caveat, I would venture a few observations.  Most Finnish parents, like parents elsewhere, want the system to give their children the skills they will need to get a job.  But the meltdown of Nokia was a huge blow to the Finns.  I would guess that seeing the firm that had been their national champion in trouble made them less relaxed than in the past about the future of young people.  One surprising and perhaps related theme among teachers in the VET system is that young Finns need to be entrepreneurs whether they start their own businesses or work for someone else.  Teachers I met stressed the importance of teaching entrepreneurship and of young people being their own advocates who sell their skills to employers.  One impressive VET school I visited in the suburbs of Helsinki had an incubator for small businesses where students worked alongside the business people.

MT: Would you describe the contours of the VET system?
NH: While there is a small workplace-based apprenticeship program, Finnish VET is mainly a school-based, three-year program, similar to that in other European countries and includes the traditional trades as well as white-collar occupations.  More of those three years is spent in school than is the case in other school-based systems like the Netherlands and Denmark.  In this credit-based system, a minimum of 20 credits of the 120 required for a degree must be spent in a workplace, which amounts to about six months, usually in 6 to 8 week periods.  Schools are called "vocational colleges," and in the urban areas, they look like community colleges in the United States, populated by thousands of students.  Like U.S. community colleges as well, students are older than what you would expect since lower secondary ends at around age 16.  The average age is 19.  There are several reasons for this.  Young men must do a year of obligatory military service and most do it between ages 19 and 20; young women are now participating as well.  As in some other countries, VET colleges also serve adults returning for additional qualifications, pushing the average age up.  A good number of students I talked with had traveled before continuing in VET, a pattern encouraged in many small countries, where young people understand that the new world is a global one and where learning other languages and cultures is critical.  Finnish won't get you very far outside of Finland. Finally, there is a shortage of places in vocational schools, so 16-year olds may wait for a place in their program of choice.

MT: What surprised you about what you saw?
NH: The very high rate of unemployment among Finnish youth.  Over 19 percent of Finnish youth are unemployed.  These high rates existed even before the fiscal crisis and rival the U.S.  Poverty is growing in Finland, and may ultimately threaten aspects of the welfare state.  One recent statistic is that about 65,000 people between ages 15 and 29 are outside of formal education and employment.  But some Finns also attribute the intermittent patterns of VET attendance to the Finnish system of social benefits—it's too easy for young people live on government stipends.  Whether the result of labor polices or a failure in the education system to provide attractive and flexible choices or both, youth who fail to settle into productive adult lives are a worry to the Finns.

MT: Does that suggest to you that the Finnish VET system is a failure?
NH: I'd say they do a middling job in supporting the learning of older teens, not the exemplary job they do with compulsory school.  I saw some outstanding facilities where students were doing truly high quality work in arts and media and landscape design.  I saw other programs that were pretty humdrum.  So what may be absent is consistent high quality across the board that one sees in the best systems—Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, for example.  One of the great strengths of Finnish VET is its strong emphasis on sending students abroad and bringing students from other countries into their VET system.  This gives young Finns a great advantage when they enter the full time work force, and is likely to be increasingly important as the years go by.  And looking beyond school, the overall rates of employment for the Finnish workforce are very high, so the overall rate of unemployment is not out of line when you take in the whole population.  As in other Nordic countries, Finns continue to learn through their life times.

MT: I get the impression that the Finnish VET system is viewed by employers not as an opportunity to train their own future workers and pick the best, as in many other European countries, but as part of the general education system.  Does that sound right to you?
NH: I didn't meet with employers, but I have the same impression as you do.  I see one of the great strengths of the Swiss, German, Dutch and Austrian systems is that students exit with deep experience of workplaces.  Employers and unions are engaged in VET through sectoral and regional organizations that take responsibility for curriculum, for assessment, and often for courses that orient students to the sector.  While Finnish employers assess student learning, and advise on qualifications, Finland doesn't use sectoral organizations to aggregate work placements and provide infrastructure to ease the burden, especially in small companies, of taking on a VET student.  VET colleges appear to have small, lightly staffed career offices, and students are encouraged to find their (unpaid) placements on their own. Finnish VET has qualities similar to U.S. community colleges where students spend most of their time with teachers in classrooms.  To their credit, the Finns are committed to improving VET, and especially dealing with the under supply of places in VET and in the university.
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