Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the kind of work you do?
My name is Jóhannes Árnason, my background is in biology and I have a master’s degree in science education. I have been working at Akureyri Vocational College (VMA) since 1990, mostly teaching biology and related academic subjects. I have always been professionally interested in students prone to early school leaving. I have worked as an administrator at my college for two years and I have done a lot of work on developing projects. I very much like to meet students and help them find out their interests and strong sides. Unlike many teachers and educators in Iceland who look at the what students have problems with (failing exams and courses), I tend to look at the positive experience students can have.
Can you tell us bit about the WorkMentor project? Who was involved?
WorkMentor was part of a series of projects, all of which are based on the idea that in the education and training process it is important to involve three parties – the student, the school and the workplace. The project WorkMentor focused on the third party – the mentors and supervisors of the learners at the workplace. We also thought it was very important to involve employees in the training because they are the people working alongside the students. The overall aim of the WorkMentor project was to provide work supervisors with greater understanding of vocational learning and mentoring skills in order to provide better support to young people in VET. This would improve the effectiveness, retention and achievement of on-the-job learning for apprenticeships and work placements. We believe that supporting students in training makes them more likely to finish the training and their studies and more likely to want to work in that sector.
VMA piloting group
Our partners all had a lot of experience with workplace training and mentoring. We had people from agriculture, nursing, metalworking, building and construction, and more. At VMA we focussed also on students prone to early school leaving, and ways of supporting them in the workplace.
Why is VET important?
Of course, the society needs people who can do things – not only people who can think about and write about ideas and notions, calculate or draw. We need workers who can also use tools, who can manufacture and repair, who can take care of people and machines. I think in Iceland we won’t have enough people who are competent in doing the many important jobs that do not require a university degree, unless we focus on how to train and educate people for these jobs. I feel VET is neglected in Iceland. Perhaps not the traditional trades, like house building, but the new jobs in transportation, new technology and tourism are definitely affected. I believe that projects like WorkMentor speed up the development of VET in Iceland.
Workers training students in metalworking
How did you identify the key issues and decide on a course of action? How did you address them?
The first phase of the project was creating a survey for employers about the support provided in the workplace. We had about 100 employers participate in the survey. The main result was that employers recognised the need for training of work mentors and they were positive towards sending their employees to a workshop on work mentoring. Then we selected the key issues to be addressed at the workshop and finally we launched the workshops where around 50 people participated. We had very positive feedback from everyone who took part.
Learning at the workplace
Did you use any special tools or resources to complete the project?
We used mentoring workshops and materials from our partner from Wales. They had developed mentoring methods for many types of support systems. We looked at the specific issues concerning the workplace as a place for mentoring and then we melted these together into a training pack for mentors in the workplace and the workbook for qualities and skills for mentoring in the workplace.
Can you tell us about some of the barriers and challenges you encountered during the project?
The different national VET systems were sometimes making it difficult to standardise our approach. The duties in workplaces can be different between countries. Nonetheless, the partnership functioned well and we did not have any difficulties with the project partners. From the beginning we experienced a very positive response from everyone in working in the workplaces and the colleges involved.
Workshop in Nantes
How did you personally benefit from this project?
I got a much better insight into the complexities of vocational education and training. I learnt a lot from people with extensive knowledge about how workplaces function as places for training new and existing members of staff. Also I improved my English a lot and learnt how to work with people with different views.
To learn more about the WorkMentor project and its findings please visit the WorkMentor website.