I am out of the office, collecting data again.
Again I am seeking out 10th graders to hear their career-choice-stories, and this time I have travelled to a relatively remote place in the northern part of Norway. Refreshing, since my last interviews was in the city.
This is a very interesting community, because it is so different from what I am used to. It’s number of inhabitants is about 1000, which means that the local municipality offers schooling only until 10th grade. It takes about 2 hours by bus to get to the nearest town, and this is also where you find the nearest upper secondary schools, in terms of accessibility by commuting. And you can’t really rely on the bus either, after all you need to get over two mountains passes where the winter weather hits really hard, sometimes leaving this place isolated for days. This means that in order to go to upper secondary, you need to move out and live for yourself in the city, there is no way around it. So going for education after compulsory school costs, psychologically too.
The community is situated in the inland and not on the coast. This means that the economic base for the community is agriculture, and a small number of minor industries, in addition to public jobs in the municipal administration, education and health institutions. These are the possibilities for permanent employment. It means that the employment market is very limited and very segregated. The academics, I was told, referring to the relatively few people educated beyond upper secondary, occupied the public jobs.
A common way of life for the un-publicly-employed (not unemployed) however, was what they called:
Meaning someone who knows a bit of everything and can repair whatever is broken in some way or another, can do a bit of this or that if needed, a jack-of-all-trades-type of qualification stemming from farm-life and a general do-it-yourself kind of outlook on life. It is a qualification possible in a community where everybody knows who you are and your reputation (and your parents reputation) far precedes any qualification paper any educational institution have ever produced. And often they have no such thing, having left school before completion. Being a pelementmaker is most often combined with farming, as the farm itself rarely can support an entire family and extra income is needed, and these multifariously skilled people are versatile, flexible and rarely out of work.
What was interesting about the phenomenon of the pelementmaker, was that it seemed almost an ideal for the teenagers I interviewed, even though they are actually living right in the middle of an educational revolution. They are prompted to make this choice of upper secondary, to get a trade, one trade, because they have been told that having a trade – and a documented one at that – is vital in the modern world, and that their future as safely employed is dependent on this. And this is a tune we know, whether urban or rural indigenous, that competence is the key to safety, and the ability to acquire, maintain and develop it is a necessary career skill.
Yet they are living in another reality. The difference between what they can see is working out for their parents or older siblings, is not the same as what they are told they need to do in order to work it out for themselves.
I think this puts the concept of school drop-out into new perspective. Drop-out is of course a major cause of worry and headache for those responsible for keeping up the rate of completion through upper secondary, like politicians and school leaders. And stakeholders, academics, counsellors and teachers makes policies, research, counsel and teach in an attempt to amend this tendency. But like one of the teachers I talked to today explained: the drop-out rate feels false when they count only the ones making it all the way through to the certificate of apprenticeship after two years of school and two years of work experience, and they do not count the ones who didn’t get apprenticeships after the first two years but made it into other jobs, learning other things – becoming a pelementmaker, doing fine and making it work on their own. And in a class of two students, when one of them don’t complete upper secondary, then the drop-out rate is 50%. So no wonder it is high!
The point is anyway, that the idea of school drop-out and the concept of being a pelementmaker, does not really go together. I got the feeling that right now I have come across one of the ambiguities of the grey area between theory and practice, politics and people, statistics and lived experience, academia and real life. It is a reminder that experiences differ, problems are not the same, things challenge people in different ways, and when I offer solutions on the basis of my research I need to keep this in mind. A school drop-out might be a community hero. And it is not my job to make him a problem.