Norway’s conservative government rolled out a new integration strategy this week that aims to get more refugees and immigrants into the workforce, more quickly. It demands language proficiency and settlement in areas where there’s a demand for labour.
The strategy was rolled out by not only the education minister who’s now also in charge of integration, Jan Tore Sanner, but also Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Finance Minister Siv Jensen and Culture Minister Trine Skei Grande. The leaders of all three parties that make up Solberg’s conservative coalition were thus in place when the strategy was launched at the Hellerud high school in Oslo, where immigrants can study towards being certified in a specific trade while learning Norwegian at the same time.
The program has been lauded, most recently in business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), because those taking part don’t share the same native languages, thus forcing them to learn to communicate in Norwegian. They’ll also simultaneously learn various concrete trades, such as carpentry, so they’ll gain skills that are in demand. DN reported that recent figures from state statistics bureau SSB show that Norway can lack as many as 70,000 skilled labourers over the next several years. In addition to carpenters, Norway needs health care workers, cooks and child minders, to name a few.
The program at Hellerud even assigned its participants to build framework for typical Norwegian hytter (cottages), which also teaches them something about Norwegian culture, history and recreation. In addition to learning and gaining skills, participants are also paid for their work, instead of simply collecting welfare. Initial results are promising, with low absentee rates and high job placement prospects. The program will replace Norway’s former two-year introduction program that DN reported was proving to be expensive and ineffective.
“When we expect immigrants to contribute to society, we also have to make it possible for them to gain competence that meets job market demands,” said Sanner, who recently took over responsibility for integration from the justice ministry. “Education and work are important for the individual, to gain freedom and self-sufficiency, but also to secure a sustainable welfare state.” The transfer of integration responsibility to the education ministry is being hailed as a smart move in itself, because of better prospects for developing competence.
Solberg’s government is calling the new strategy Integreringsløftet (The Integration Boost), and it seems simple enough in its approach: Language training, job training and participation in Norwegian society in that order. Solberg thinks programs to achieve more rapid integration, especially of refugees, have needed improvement.
“We haven’t been good enough at getting new arrivals out in permanent jobs,” Solberg conceded during the visit to Hellerud. At a meeting with refugees and immigrants taking part in the language- and job-training program at Hellerud, she said it was time to take refugee parents as seriously as their children. First- and second-generation immigrants have often done well, but too many of their parents have struggled to take part in Norwegian society themselves. Solberg said her government will now establish obligatory introduction programs aimed at parents, so they can better understand Norway’s school system, for example, modern society “and what other parents are talking about.”
Tougher local demands
She said the state government will also be putting tougher demands on local governments, which remain largely responsible for refugees and immigrants in their communities, to improve their introduction programs for refugees. “We’ve spent massive amounts of money on this without getting good enough results,” Solberg said. She wants state immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet), for example, to avoid settling new arrivals in areas where there already are lots of refugees, to avoid segregation and promote integration. Refugees will now be settled in areas where there are few refugees from before and good job prospects.
Local governments with good track records for integration will, however, also be able to settle more refugees. They’ve become attractive in areas struggling with depopulation but where jobs need to be filled. The state also provides funding to resettle refugees that’s become attractive to local municipal governments.
Competence is king
Introduction programs for refugees that demanded a certain number of language training hours will be replaced by demands that Norwegian language competence simply reaches a satisfactory level. The programs will also include demands that children of immigrants be able to participate in social activities with other children. If they need sports equipment, for example, they’ll should be able to get it.
Jensen’s Progress Party, long skeptical to immigration in Norway, has insisted on better integration of new arrivals before more are accepted. “Now that we have low levels of immigration, it’s easier to provide for better and more successful integration programs,” she said. It’s important, she added, to make demands and measure results.