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LABOUR-ICELAND: Centre Gives Leg Up to Listless Youth

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Jan 20 2010 (IPS) - For young Icelanders at a loose end the Fjolsmidjan (multi-workshop) can prove to be a turning point.

Learning skills at Fjolsmidjan Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Learning skills at Fjolsmidjan Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Set up in 2001, the original idea came from the Red Cross and ran as a pilot project for three years, modelled on Denmark’s ‘production schools’. Two centres now exist in Iceland: the main one in Reykjavik and another in the northern town of Akureyri.

Fjolsmidjan is designed to accommodate youth aged 18-24. Some have dropped out of school, often because of bullying or behavioural problems. Others have completed compulsory schooling but are at a loss as to what to do next. A few have drug problems or spend most of the day sleeping.

A third group consists of unemployed youth with a history of drugs, though if they are active users they cannot attend Fjolsmidjan. Those who lapse are sent to a treatment centre, but may return when they are off narcotics.

The unemployment rate in this age group is around 18 percent, but Fjolsmidjan opens its doors solely to those referred to it by community social workers or by the Directorate of Labour.

Research from other Nordic countries has shown that young people tend to adjust to life on unemployment benefit and lose the motivation to look for work. This is particularly so for those with little or no education above compulsory schooling.

At Fjoldsmidjan the working day begins at 8.30 and finishes at 3.00, with a lunch break and several other mini-breaks in between. A five-minute stint at a computer is an additional bonus for those who have worked efficiently and completed their targets.

Staff, though, have half-hour meetings before and after the hours, the earlier one to plan the day and the other to find out if anyone in the group appears to be acting abnormally. “We go over the events of the day and find out if anything untoward has come up with any of the youngsters – for instance, if one of them is out of sorts,” says Thorbjorn Jensson, director of the centre.

“If we find something amiss, we try to do something about it,” he added.

Jensson has been there from the beginning. “To begin with, we had seven-nine youngsters and all of them worked in the carpentry division,” he says. “Now, though, we have 60-78 in total and six divisions in which they can work.”

The in-house divisions include those for design, handicrafts, cooking, carpentry, electricals, computer applications, packing and car washing.

“When the youngsters first arrive, they make a list of one to three of their favourite choices and we try to abide by them. Sometimes they have to make do with their second or third choice. They can opt to move to another division once they are here, but as things stand this is really only feasible if someone wants to swap with them,” says Jensson.

In reality, the centre should only be able to take in 60 young people. However, a sizeable number are in school for part of the day, allowing Fjolsmidjan to accommodate them. About 20 percent of those on the rolls are girls.

“We encourage those who want to go back to school to take just one to three subjects and see these through to the end. Many have had bad experiences at school and have low self-esteem, so it is important that they take one step at a time,” says Jensson.

“If they take an exam at the end of their chosen subject, they get the course fee refunded by us,” he continues.

About 70 percent of unemployed young people under 25 have only completed compulsory schooling which stops at age 16.

Fjolsmidjan has a waiting list of about 50, twice the number for last year. The increase is attributed to rising unemployment following last year’s financial meltdown. “But at the start of the New Year, about 12 of our youngsters will go back to school, so that will make space for more,” says Jensson.

Asked what the young people do while on the waiting list, Jensson replies, “Nothing. They just hang around.”

When Fjolsmidjan moves to its new premises, it will be able to accommodate 90-100 people. The new centre will be in the vicinity of several large horse-stabling areas, so Jensson says there is a possibility of starting a new division where the focus will be on feeding and grooming horses in the local area.

The centre will also have enough space to set up a paper-shredding machine, again catering to horse owners.

Fjolsmidjan has an 80 percent success rate in returning young people to education or the workplace. One person, Gunnar Eli Sigurjonsson, 27, went through Fjolsmidjan in its early days and now works as a cook in a Reykjavik restaurant.

At the time he was there, there were about 25-30 youngsters at the centre. “I was in a fairly woeful condition – was unemployed, on drugs, did not want to work and was depressed – when I got an offer to go there and try it out,” he told IPS. I was in the car division for about two years but was also sent to several other places, such as the Iceland Handball Association, to do paperwork of various kinds,” he says.

Most young people nowadays stay at Fjolsmidjan for six to eight months before they are gently encouraged to go somewhere else. By this time, they are usually capable of working or studying.

Sigurjonsson stayed on for two years. Why did he stay so long? “I didn’t want to go out into the labour market until I had sufficient maturity to take on the challenges that I might face,” he replied.

When he finally left Fjolsmidjan, he went on to study at the School of Home Economics in East Iceland before starting to work in the restaurant business. Of his fellow Fjolmidjan mates he says: “Most of the people who were with me are working today, and all are doing well.”

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