Iceland is a country of many wonders, one of which is found all around the capital area: every year thousands of temporary plants and flowerbeds are planted around the town, at the latitude of 64 degrees north, practically on the Arctic Circle. And every year thousands of Icelandic teenagers take care of them.
Vinnuskóli is a summer work program operating under the City of Reykjavík, Department of the Environment, in which roughly 80% of Icelandic youngsters aged 14 to 16 participate, the majority for three years. According to the Department of the Environment the aim of the program is to “create healthy and constructive summer jobs for teenagers.” The youngsters in the program work in public buildings and parks, as well as help elderly citizens with their private gardens. Work is conducted in groups led by instructors that are typically former participants of the program, and who are usually just a few years older than the people they supervise.
“When I think back, I remember it was mostly just playing around,” says Birta Benónýsdóttir, 19, who attended the Municipal Work School few years ago. She recalls painting fences and picking weeds, collecting trash in the school yards and cutting grass. The City of Reykjavík has higher goals for the program, however. As the name Municipal Work School suggests, the idea is to combine educational ideas and the employment of the young people, in other words to teach the teenagers how to be employed.
“The main purpose is not just to keep the kids occupied,” says Henry Alexander Henrysson, Assistant Principal and Coordinator of the program. “It’s first and foremost a school, with more and more emphasis laid on the educational aspect,” he states. During the Summer Work School the youngsters are supposed to learn work ethics, cooperation skills and environmental values. In the end of the summer all the participants get written references, evaluating their work and behaviour in terms of, for example punctuality, working methods and attitudes towards superiors.
“I got an ‘extra good’ in all,” says Birta smiling. What her instructors perhaps didn’t know at the time of evaluation, is that it was much quicker to just simply shovel the mud on top of the weed that she was supposed to pick, to hide it instead of picking each and every one up. “Oh yeah, it was much faster and easier!” she smiles.
Many of the participants claim that the real accomplishments of the Vinnuskóli program are teaching the valuable skills of hiding, the exercise of laziness and secretly amusing oneself when working gets boring—important skills to learn in a country with the second least efficient workforce in Europe.
“We were supposed to be working, sitting down, pulling up the weeds,” remembers Birta. “But instead we used to pick up worms and insects and make them race. We had to come up with something that looked like working so our instructor wouldn’t notice what we were up to.”
The Municipal Work School system is unique to Iceland, originally established already as early as in 1950s, and it has its ideological roots deep in the nature of the nation. “In the Icelandic society there has always been a strong sense of work ethics,” says Henrysson. “It is expected by the society to start working already from early age. It’s not accepted to just stay at home without doing something. It’s almost a part of our national identity to work a lot.” Back in the old times it was easier for youngsters to get a job because all the help available was needed in the farms in agriculture and fishery. Now that such a need for extra hands on the farms no longer exists, the summer work school program provides the main way for youngsters to gain summer jobs.
“I’m not one of these career superstars,” says Kári, 16. “This is a comfortable job, here I can hang out.”