Global Perspectives: A Video Interview with Roland Osterlund

By Betsy Brown Ruzzi

I recently sat down with Roland Osterlund, an internationally recognized expert in the field of VET and human resource development and a member of the CIEB Advisory Board.  Previously, Roland was director general of the Ministry of Education, Denmark, and was responsible for the national system of vocational education and training.  Below is an excerpt from a longer interview with Roland on Denmark’s long and successful history of training students to enter the workforce and build profitable careers.  A full transcript of this video follows.

Betsy Brown Ruzzi: How do students move through the VET system in Denmark?

Roland Osterlund: There are basically two pathways into the VET system in Denmark.  One way is to sign a contract with an employer on Day 1 if the employer is willing to do it, and they will have a salary for the entire period of training.  This way is a lot like the traditional apprenticeship scheme where you start in the company then they come to a school setting for periods of time to pick up on the theoretical stuff and to put a perspective to what they learned in the company.  The other way is to start at a vocational school or college where students can really try a variety of different types of vocations and different programs and test themselves against what is needed there, and eventually they can select one.  This way they start with six months of basic education within that specific line of business.  And based on that, they can go and try to find themselves an employer, have a contract at that time and complete the entire program.

BBR: What is the employers’ responsibility in providing training through VET programs?

RO: Basically, it’s the responsibility of the student to (find) a slot somewhere in business and industry, but there is a whole support system in the vocational schools and in the public system to help them find this slot.  The unions are doing their best and the employers’ organizations are also involved in trying to find training places.  The issue with training places is that the number of training places will fluctuate with the economy.  We have a number of incentives for employers that can be used when the economy is low.  In 2007 just before the present crisis hit us, we had a shortage of students for the training places. To address this shortage, we have created something we call school-based practical training where schools create a kind of setting which is very much like an employer training place and they hire people from industry to train the students there.  And this results in the same certificate as those with employer slots.  The certificate does not specify where a student is trained, so they can have as good an education certificate as the rest of the students.

BBR: In what workforce sectors does the VET systems provide training?

RO: Our system includes all the traditional trades and businesses, including bricklayers and carpenters and hairdressers.  But in addition, we have tried to make sure that the new trades or new lines of business are included in the system.  And as the system is very much based on cooperation with the social partners, which is our name for the union and the employer partners, their organizations are heavily involved in updating the sectors we provide training in.

BBR: What is the value of an effective VET system?

RO: Well, we have in the system 400 years of experience in learning by doing and learning in realistic context.  And, to be honest, it’s cheaper than school-based education and training because the system produces while it trains, and there’s no shame in selling what it produces as long as you take the right price rate.

We have also experienced that some students in academic programs understand better if they see some practical applications of the math and other kinds of theories.  To cater for some of the bright students in vocational education, we put together something called the “upper secondary technical programs examinations.”  These are three-year programs that provide access to university-level studies on a par with the standard traditional upper secondary programs.  That’s called HTX in Danish, and it was really meant to be an option for those who prefer a practical approach.  We had the best of the engineers develop applied learning projects, but we soon learned that if we ask students within, for example, iron and metal or construction, to come up with a proposal for a project and follow that up with a perspective on the theoretical side and report on that, they come up with extremely interesting and also useful ideas.  So today, it is really applied in the sense that the students come up with the ideas and they get some help and support from the school, and eventually they manage also to have the best out of what they do.  HTX students are very popular at the universities especially in engineering and those lines of businesses because they have tried to touch the material and know how it reacts and so on.