Juha Makkonen is an expert on working in organisations. At every stage of his career, he has been involved with organising and advocacy. Currently, he is hard at work reforming the Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ). How did a young man dreaming of a career as a history teacher or rector become an active in organisations and a behind-the-scenes influencer?
Makkonen moved from his hometown of Savonlinna to Jyväskylä in the autumn of 1996. He began his studies at the Department of History, majoring in general history. He was particularly interested in political history and the relations between superpowers. Yet he was also interested in a different kind of advocacy work. In general upper secondary school Makkonen had served as a vice-chair of the student council and he was active in shaping youth policy. At one point, he had even thought of becoming a politician. During his studies, he had a chance to work on the board as well as the representative body of the student union – and eventually also as the chair for both of these. He found further opportunities to influence as a student member of the Faculty Council, a member of the board of the student organisation Tosine, and as the chair of the local chapter of Centre Party students.
“At the time, the assessment scale for the master’s theses was being changed from the Latin honours to a three-level Finnish scale,” Makkonen says. “The students of the department who supported me demanded I make a stand against this, and so I presented a dissenting opinion against the Faculty Council resolution, which was unusual in those days.”
“I learned a lot of important things about organising in the University community in those days, and I have not regretted participating in student union activities – quite the opposite.”
Towards the end of his studies, Makkonen started to become more interested in working in the world of organisations. Alongside his studies, he worked as a PR assistant and trustee in the Union of Upper Secondary School Students in Finland. After graduating, he applied for history teacher posts but getting job interviews was difficult without work experience. At this stage, organisation work began to look like a potential alternative and soon enough it became a defining factor of his entire career. Makkonen first found employment as secretary general in the Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (SAMOK). After a couple of years, he returned to the Union of Upper Secondary School Students in Finland – this time as the secretary general.
“Many of my former fellow students wondered how I felt about having upper secondary school students as my superiors, so I told them it wasn’t I problem,” he says. “For me, those students are the most talented people of their generation. It was a privilege to work with them and be worthy of their confidence.”
After working for more than five years in different organisations, Makkonen applied for the lecturer’s position in the Degree Programme in Civic Activities and Youth Work at Humak University of Applied Sciences. To his great surprise, he got the job and began teaching – not history, though, but what he had done since his graduation: youth work in different organisations. Although history per se was not at the centre of his duties, his studies have proved useful in his teaching. Organisational activity require a good all-round education.
“When talking about influencing, participation and advocacy, it is useful to know the background of different phenomena and events as well as understanding larger development trends. It is easy to talk with different people when you have a broad range of knowledge.”
At Humak University of Applied Sciences, he became the programme manager and, thereafter, he moved to a temporary position as development manager in OAJ. There he is tasked with planning and running the comprehensive reform of OAJ’s organisation activity. Makkonen finds the job interesting and is happy that its scope is broad.
“There is enough time to really listen to those whom the reform will affect,” Makkonen says. “We have to get those who are active and the field to cooperate with the reform work. Contacts are invaluable in organisation work.
“If you have always done your job well and got on well with people, it is easier to introduce new ideas and cooperate with different groups. Plus, career progress goes more smoothly when you have good and functioning networks.”
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