Swedish firms 'clueless' about foreign graduates

Saturday May 25, 2013 - 11:17:12 in International News by Chief Editor
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    Swedish firms 'clueless' about foreign graduates

    As white-collar union Saco slammed Sweden for not helping well-educated foreigners into the labour market, The Local spoke to researcher Josefin Edström about the disconnect between foreign professionals and Swedish employers.

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As white-collar union Saco slammed Sweden for not helping well-educated foreigners into the labour market, The Local spoke to researcher Josefin Edström about the disconnect between foreign professionals and Swedish employers.
As white-collar union Saco slammed Sweden for not helping well-educated foreigners into the labour market, The Local spoke to researcher Josefin Edström about the disconnect between foreign professionals and Swedish employers.

In a study involving 29 highly-educated foreigners, Saco, which represents university-educated employees, found that there were serious shortcomings when it came to helping foreigners find work that matched their qualifications.

"Employers need more knowledge about foreign education and foreign experience so that they're not just assuming 'Swedish is good and everything else is bad'," Saco researcher Josefin Edström tells The Local.

"Many participants (have) a degree from a prestigious university, but even then employees can feel uncertain. I think it's about a lack of knowledge," she says.

"People want to employ those they feel secure with, that's why people so often hire someone they know, even when someone else could be much better."

A lack of employer knowledge, however, isn't the only thing hampering foreign professionals, according to the Saco report. Many of the interviewees detailed a serious lack of information available through the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket) and the Swedish Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen).

Yet another sticking point is language; namely, the importance of learning Swedish, and doing so quickly. Researchers point to degree-carrying foreigners who found themselves stuck in SFI (Svenska för invandrare) language classes for immigrants with classmates who were illiterate, or fellow students who learned at a much slower rate.

Furthermore, there are often extended gaps between the completion of the basic SFI courses, and the start of more advanced language courses offered at community adult-education centres (Komvux), meaning that foreigners are stuck waiting, or repeating course material they've already covered.

Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag says the system is in the process of being improved.

"We have to face that we have a problem compared to other, English-speaking, countries, and that is the need to know Swedish," he tells The Local.

"What we know is working is when foreigners can combine a degree from another country with a Swedish language course, as well as perhaps studying something they're lacking through a Swedish university, while doing an internship - that's a good way into the Swedish labour market."

Ullenhag is quick to stress the importance of diversity in Sweden, particularly the vastly different skill sets on offer, but also noted that the government has missed out on some opportunities in the past.

"We have treated too many people who come to Sweden as weak people who need help instead of asking them what kind of knowledge they can bring to Sweden. This is something we're dramatically trying to reform," he explains.

One key is offering more tailored programmes with the right combination of language classes, work experience, and job training, Ullenhag adds.

"We need to individualize more. For someone without formal education, the best way to learn is through an internship together with studying Swedish. On the other hand, for someone coming to Sweden with a higher education level, it may be better to start with studying Swedish 25-40 hours a week and then go into the labour market," he explains.

"We are doing massive reforms on integration policy in Sweden. We want to see what people can do instead of asking what they need from the state, and secondly we want to individualize more."

Reforming Swedish language classes for immigrants is the next big step.

"We have a lot of examples already - Swedish for drivers, Swedish for people working in forestry - they're local projects but I want to look into having a national system for targeting individual needs," Ullenhag says.

Among foreign-born job seekers with some post-secondary education, unemployment in 2012 was at 12 percent. Among highly-educated Swedish-born workers, in contrast, unemployment was at 3.5 percent, according to figures from Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån - SCB).

Saco presented ten proposals to the government at the conference, ranging from creating a plan for helping foreign academics into the workforce to be spread by the Migration Board and the Tax Agency. Saco claimed that the SFI structure should be strengthened, allowing foreigners with post-secondary education to study together at the same level, with a focus on their professions.

Researchers added that the Employment Agency's offerings for highly-educated foreigners needs to be improved, and that a national model for verifying qualifications should be launched, together with an increase in internship possibilities.

"Many foreign professionals do have a job, so compared with the foreigners without a higher education they have a better situation. However, many of them don't have work that matches what they are qualified to do, and it can take a really long time to find something," Saco's Edström adds.

With one in five degree holders in Sweden foreign born, many who have come to Sweden as "love refugees" quickly find that they cannot rely on their partners for help in their specific fields.

"Those with Swedish partners often complain of limited support. But others explain that they had problems adjusting to social codes, such as how to handle a job interview, as the information was simply unavailable to them," the Saco researcher explains.

As an example, Edström shares a story of how one respondent didn't realize the importance of professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.

The Saco report included foreigners in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Umeå, who hailed from 23 different countries in Europe, North Africa, South America, North America, and Asia.

Some felt they had been discriminated against, particularly those with foreign-sounding names.

"One participant was urged to change his name the first time he went to the Swedish Employment Agency. This person was told that employers don't employ people with foreign names. It's a problem that an employer could say this, but also that they systematically do it - there have even been studies about it," Edström explains, calling the situation a "huge problem".

"What's strange is that Sweden is such a small country with so much immigration, and competent people must be able to handle these things, but we haven't gotten there yet. But people have to be conscious of it, you have to fight on, and it will solve itself in the end. This is what many people said, anyway."

Overall, however, Edström is pleased with the report, and hopes the government will consider the proposals.

Integration Minster Ullenhag also praised the report.

"It's an important report for me, and a good picture of what didn't work and hasn't worked in the past. That's not to say we've solved anything, we'll continue to reform integration policy," he says.

"If we are successful with integration policy, then I'm sure it will be one of the major explanations for why Sweden is going to stay rich."

Oliver Gee