Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Something I Think About Almost Everyday

I was trying to explain the American vocational system (or the growing lack there of) to a Finnish confectioner student today. I said that American's typically defines vocational school areas of study as mechanics, construction, cosmetology, electricians and sometimes but very rarely, culinary arts.  She was just as shocked at the limited options for students as I was at the amount of options for Finnish students. I realized that I haven’t actually shared the amazing things that are happening in this country in a way that lets you know how truly amazing the vocational program is. This young lady is graduating on Friday and as been nominated by her peers to give the speech at graduation. When I asked her what she is going to say, her response was to talk about how lucky she has been to find something she loves to do that makes people happy. Again I walked away from a conversation amazed at the opportunities that Finnish students have for school and the role they play in their own education.

First let me back up. When I say vocational school qualification, I actually mean that students can get qualified in any of the following areas (each of these are linked to The Finnish National Board website and the curriculum for each qualification):


Humanities and Education

Natural Resources and the Environment

Natural Sciences

Social Sciences, Business and Administration

Social Services, Health and Sport

Technology, Communication and Transport

Vocational Qualification in Aircraft Maintenance 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Building Maintenance Technology 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Construction 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Electrical Engineering and Automation Technology 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Food Production 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Information and Telecommunications Technology 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Laboratory Technology, Laboratory Technologist 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Land Surveying 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Logistics 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Metalwork and Machinery 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Property Maintenance Services 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Publishing and Printing 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Seafaring 2010 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Textiles and Clothing 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Upholstery and Interior Design 2009 (pdf)
Vocational Qualification in Vehicle Technology 2009 (pdf)

Tourism, Catering and Domestic Services

Amazing right?!  Keep in mind that each of these have specialty study programs within the general qualification.  The broad definition of vocational studies allows about 50% of students in upper secondary schools to take classes that are hands-on and in the interested career field of their choice. It takes 3 years and these vocational studies are combined with general studies to give a qualification certificate. The coolest part of this process is how much time students spend in “on the job learning.” This means that students see the relevance of what they are doing in the context of careers. This also means that you learn what you don’t want to do in the context of careers. Yesterday I talked to a student is who is studying practical nursing. She very confidently said she learned that she has no desire to work with kids because she worked in a daycare and didn't like it.  She then worked in an elderly care home and realized she loved old people. Fantastic! I love hearing about experiences that help students figure out what they want to do before they get stuck doing it for years.

I recently got a chance to go to Skills Finland which was held in Joensuu this year. This event is a showcase of the best students from all of the vocational schools around Finland in their fields.  IT WAS AMAZING!!  The excitement that these guys and girls had about demonstrating their skills was contagious!  Here are some shots from the 3-day event.

 It was truly an amazing showcase of talented young people in so many different vocations!

Marita and Roosa-Kateriina presenting in Round 1

I am maybe most excited for these ladies.  

I got a chance to practice with them as “an English speaking tourist” while they prepared to compete in the tourism field.  I figured it was a role I have mastered over the years!  These two young ladies were so motivated to work hard and to do well in their field and that hard work paid off as they came in 2nd place!  I am so excited for them and what is ahead for each of them now that they have graduated.

So I find that I ask myself almost everyday here, why can’t we do this for American students?  Now I know that there are many factors that can answer that question- skilled labor isn’t as valued, it is hard to make a living wage in the States on some of the career paths, racial stereotypes and maybe the biggest pushback is that this isn’t college. The more we push the rhetoric of college for everyone, the farther away we move from something like Skills Finland ever happening in the US. 

There are also a lot of factors that play into why this program is important in Finland- you need a certificate of qualification to get almost any type of job, you can make a living wage in many different industries, there is a cultural value of equality, and maybe most importantly, you need everyone working and paying taxes to support the social welfare system the country values.  Skilled labor is valued here and everyone is seen as playing an important role in society- no matter what your job is.

But I still ask, why can’t we create an education system in American that values individual interest over standardization?  I have taught many students over the past 8 years that would benefit from having an education that involves hands-on, relevant career focused learning. 

This New York Times article, “Texas Considers Backtracking on Testing" makes me hopeful that people in the US are talking about these very questions. The problem is complicated and there is no one simple answer. But it is my hope that maybe we can take the parts of Finnish vocational schools that work, combine it with what works in the US and create a place where people acknowledge that critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration and innovation are present vocational classrooms too.


  1. There is a SkillsUSA competition, but I guess it isn't such a big deal there. (see Youtube)

    I am a Finnish machinist, graduated one year ago. I cannot really imagine what it would be like to have studied in the US. Do the students not have hands-on experience at all when they graduate, or just a bit less? Here, the norm is two months of each school year spent in a local business doing whatever the older geezers are doing. The employer writes a commentary at the end of each training period. That employer is often also the place where the student ends up working after graduation (happened to me and several others in my class).

    I also did frequent extra hours at the school after 4PM. Much of that time was spent on a small-scale entrepreneurship program which has proved popular among vocational schools. The deal is that students start a mini-business that is tax exempt up to an income of roughly 8000 euros, maintain the bank account and bookkeeping, quote prices for jobs, write progress reports etc. A teacher is chosen for oversight and occasional help. In the end, the money incentive is almost irrelevant compared to the real-world experience gained from fulfilling real-world business expectations.

    One thing not mentioned here is that school lunch is free in each and every Finnish school, whether vocational or pre-academic (lukio), until you hit university. For the multitudes of kids who come from less wealthy backgrounds, this is a big deal.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment!! I only really know the US vocational system from a DC standpoint- which is very limited. I am hoping to do a little more exploring and research to be able to compare different states programs and opportunities when I am back in the States. Right now, students in DC have very few options when it comes to learning a vocation hands on. In fact, they are often looked down on if they choose to learn a vocation through a non-profit or an out of school organization offering training. I really feel like the perception of vocations needs to change and reflect a much higher value (much like Finland does with the vocational schools!).

      I love hearing about the different opportunities that students have in the entrepreneurship areas. I think that is a fantastic way to get real world experiences and demonstrate the skills that have been learned in school. In DC, there really isn't the support that allows students to start such a company. There is a real financial barrier that keeps the innovation and experience that comes from opportunities like you described.

      And you are certainly right- I cannot forget about the free lunches!! It is amazing that warm, good lunches are provided for everyone! I have enjoyed many of these lunches since being here!