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'Expat wives: Sweden's untapped resource'

Published: 16 May 2014 13:42 GMT+02:00

Virpal Singh spent a year working for a big IT consultancy before he wondered why he was taking assignments rather than finding assignments, not only for himself, but for others. 

"Why not do it myself?" he recalls thinking, before setting off to network as much as he possible could.

"You're just one in a million, how do you stand out?" he says. "If you want to get anywhere, you have to apply pressure, you have to be a bit annoying." 

Within three months, he had landed an assignment  for himself with Scandia bank and H&M. But he wasn't about to stop there. His go-it-alone gung-ho coincided with an observation from his social life. It dawned on Singh that many of the Indian-born IT consultants who'd arrived in Sweden had gone back home to bring back wives.

"There's an extreme amount of Indian IT consultants here, and they are always men," he says. "But when they get married - often to female IT consultants - the wife comes here after quitting her job in India." 

"So all of a sudden there's an extremely IT-competent woman sitting at home twiddling her thumbs," he says. "She doesn't know Swedish, she doesn't have a job, so she doesn't have a personal ID number.... without the number she can't sign up to free Swedish classes. It's a vicious cycle."

It's a familiar situation for many families that have recently moved to Sweden - one partner has to sacrifice or stall their career - and Singh aims to tackle it head on.

"So I thought, why not start an agency for 'Forgotten Professionals'," he says with a smile. "This is an equality question, and we also have a Swedish labour market screaming for competent IT consultants." 

"We often talk about wanting to have more gender equality in IT and engineering, and we also talk about merit being paramount in hiring, but that's not what we see on the ground," he says.

So why can the expat housewives not find work despite top-notch CVs? Follow the money... the problem is less about gender, more about girth.

Many Indian IT firms will offer a Swedish company scores of consultants - in essence offering a bulk discount - even in some cases inching close to a two-consultants-for-the-price-of-one as the company will also provide a backup team back in India. 

"As an individual, you can't compete with Tata or the other giant companies," Singh says.

With such cost-cutting appeal, few companies care that the workers in question don't speak fluent Swedish. Yet when it comes to hiring an individual, language often becomes an issue.  

Singh has not yet managed to send a single Forgotten Professional into battle...

"Nope," says Singh, but it is clear he won't give up. And it's also clear that's he's tired of Swedish employers saying they are meritocratic, when actually it's more important for many of them to keep the afternoon fika break friction free.

'Some clients just go 'What, do we have to speak Eeeenglish now'," Singh jokes. "It's a question of legacy, it's a question of feeling the employer shouldn't have to adapt to the employee."

There are notable exceptions, however, with Sing singing the praises of telecom giant Ericsson and start-up Truecaller, who use English as their default work language.

"Swedish is not relevant to the tasks at hand," Singh underscores. 

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

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