Helsinki (03.10.1998 - Juhani Artto) The five-year GRAM project, which began in 1995, has given a strong boost to vocational education in the Finnish graphical industry. Media Workers Union secretary Pekka Lahtinen believes that by the end of next year more than 800 skilled workers will have passed a demanding vocational examination. The new system of vocational exams in various industries was set up by the authorities in 1994.

An examination pass shows that the worker is able to make effective use of the most modern technology and also has good knowledge of its theoretical basis. Before taking the exam, most candidates have participated in either 120 or 60-day courses. One third of these courses comprises theoretical studies and the remaining two thirds consists of guided practical training at the workplace.

GRAM is a 100 million mark (1 FIM = 0.19 USD) project, with one fifth of the money coming from the European Social Fund, one fifth from the Finnish authorities and about 60 per cent from some 170 companies which have joined the project. GRAM was established especially to help small and medium sized companies. The project area is Helsinki and the surrounding province where about half of all graphical industry jobs are located.

The Media Workers Union is one of five partners involved in the project. Researchers form the fifth group.

Encouraged by GRAM's good results, the partners have founded similar projects in several other provinces.

In the beginning the main challenge was to create a system which would enable small and medium sized companies to let their employees take longer periods of study.

Pekka Lahtinen of the Media Workers Union says that thanks to these efforts the industry now has a proper system of vocational education. "Continuous education has become an integral part of the industry."

"However, this is only the beginning. I'm sure that by the year 2007 more than half of all graphical workers will have passed this new vocational exam", he foresees.

"In the past, a skilled worker did not need extra studies, but now looking for additional learning opportunities is a sign of a really skilled worker."

Leo Norvio, an employers federation leader, emphasises the significance of these developments on the international competitiveness of the Finnish graphical industry. "The growing appreciation of vocational skills enhances product quality."

Last year the value of Finnish graphical industry exports was about two billion marks.

Norvio points out that wide-ranging skills reduce employee stress and make the use of personnel more flexible. In his opinion, technological change is now more radical than in the 1970s when photosetting and offset technologies became popular.

"As the age profile of employees is rapidly rising, it is important to maintain everyone's skills at the level of the most modern technology", Norvio says.

He estimates that in ten years about half of present employees will have retired or for other reasons will not be available to companies.

The leader of the GRAM project, professor Antti Paasio, has long studied the graphical industry as a business. His first thesis is that the graphical industry has previously invested astonishingly little in developing its employees. "Much more attention has been paid to technology."

His second generalisation is that in large companies the workplace atmosphere is worse and internal communications are less effective than in smaller companies. The difference can already be noticed when there are more than 20 employees in the workplace. Paasio draws this conclusion from material gathered in the GRAM project and in several of his earlier studies.

"The starting point for GRAM was the learning needs of various employee groups, but the point of view has now changed. The project has become more an investigation into the most burning problems of companies in the industry."

Paasio hopes and believes that a permanent change in working culture and management methods is now under way and that this will lead to vital long-term changes.

Paasio supports the idea of giving workers broader skills profiles than before. "The spectrum of abilities can be broadened and points of contact with other trades can be increased. It would be like life insurance for individual employees, but a change in work place atmosphere, management systems and attitudes is a precondition of success in this kind of effort", he stresses.

A change in attitudes towards older workers is needed, too. "There is no justification for the attitude that those over 50 years of age are no longer able to learn everything that is needed for the most modern production systems."

"A 55-year old employee has lots of potential and a 63-year old worker is too young to finish working", Paasio says, with worries about the present situation in which the baby-boom generation is approaching retirement.