Education vs. unemployment in Norway

Despite Norway’s free education for all, many jobs requiring higher education or specialized training remain available. Could Norwegian-American students fill the gap?

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com Many fine schools, like the University of Oslo, wait for American students to take advantage of them.

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com
Many fine schools, like the University of Oslo, wait for American students to take advantage of them.

Ryan Kristiansen
Off the coast of Norway

I work offshore. As anybody who works in the industry will tell you, a good portion of your time off-watch is spent either watching TV 2 Nyhetskanalen or surfing the internet. I shudder to think what Statoil and Shell pay to enable us to check for the latest updates on Facebook 100 nautical miles offshore, but I am grateful for it.

This evening I decided that rather than seeing my friends checking in while on holiday in Spain, or the much more annoying habit of posting photos of a meal they are about to devour, I would see what Statistics Norway (www.ssb.no) has to say about unemployment.

What prompted this rather more enlightening web browsing experience was a conversation I had last weekend while at a hytte on the coast near Larvik. A mutual friend was relating her experiences working for NAV, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration. NAV is not simply a government department; it is also the subject of much scorn and has even become a verb. To nave means to go on unemployment insurance, and we were naturally quite interested if any of the stories we have heard in the press were true. For example, do young people actually show up at the window and expect to be given job seekers’ allowance? “Oh yes, but mostly they are students who want money for the summer holidays and are unaware that students are not entitled to collect benefits.” Chuckles ensued around the table. “Otherwise they are young people who show up in early June demanding a job, and they become most disappointed when we inform them that looking for work is their own responsibility, and that they should really start looking and applying for summer jobs in the early springtime.” More laughter.

Everyone who lives in Norway knows certain truths. Among these are that people who are born here are blessed to have been born in the best country on the planet, that Norway is among the richest countries in the world, and that we have low unemployment, meaning that jobs are plentiful. So it follows that people’s expectations are that if someone is unemployed for an extended period of time, they must be just lazy. Taking advantage of the welfare state is seen as especially despicable, because it is so generous and comprehensive, and those who are thought to abuse the system are seen to be much like the social parasites of the former Soviet Union.

One of our group asked what we were all thinking: “These people who stay at home must get so bored. Why don’t they just get a job at the supermarket?” The reply was surprising: “There was recently a job opening for a part-time cashier job at Bunnpris (a supermarket chain), and they had over 800 applications for that opening.”

This example was yet another reminder of a situation that is developing not just in Norway, but across the west. While there remains demand from employers for those with higher education and technical qualifications, people at the bottom of the social-economic pyramid are competing over jobs with little in the way of formal qualifications to separate them from the other candidates.

My visit to Statistics Norway allowed me to quantify the situation that is occurring in Norway now. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May was 3.2 percent. The percentage of employed individuals with a Bachelor’s degree is around 25%.

Could the demand for employees with higher education be partially met by Norwegian Americans moving to Norway? As evidenced by the number of young Americans working at The Nighthawk Diner, I am not the first one to have thought about this. Higher education in Norway remains free for everyone, including Americans. The catch is that while Master-level degrees and PhDs are taught in English, Bachelor level programs are taught in Norwegian.

Perhaps it is time for the Sons of Norway to start marketing their language camps as a way to prepare future generations of Norwegian Americans for University in the home country, and for those who have already spent their own money on a Bachelor’s degree in the United States to investigate the possibility of studying in Norway for their Master’s.

This would not only allow Norwegian Americans a much more affordable path to higher education, it could also go some way toward meeting Norway’s own needs for technically qualified personnel.

If only Norway had an ancestry visa scheme similar to Ireland and the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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