Foreign degrees pose Swedish jobs challenge

Karen Holst
Karen Holst - [email protected]
Foreign degrees pose Swedish jobs challenge

Many employers require foreign-earned diplomas and certifications to be translated and verified according to Swedish standards; an often expensive and time-consuming process, The Local's Karen Holst has found.


If you’re sprinting along the fast-track to find a job in Sweden, be aware that several speed bumps may likely slow the chase down, including something as basic as having education and relevant experience recognized.

Perhaps you’ve heard the comment: ‘Vad har du för intyg eller utbildning?’ (What are your qualifications or education?).

This is usually followed by a long, awkward stare. You’re stumped. Your university studies, diplomas and professional experiences are all listed right there on your CV.

Yet despite the details being presented in black and white, it somehow makes no sense to the Swedish employer sitting across from you.

“Of course it is much more difficult to compare educational backgrounds if a person is coming from outside the EU,” says Torbjörn Wallin, Chief of Sweden’s European Employment Services (EURES) supported through the Swedish Public Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen).

As if that’s not enough, densely populated areas combined with high unemployment rates and limited job opportunities, set the stage for stiff competition amongst a rising population of educated immigrants.

According to 2009 statistics from Sweden’s Ministry of Employment (Arbetsmarknadsdepartementet), more than 375,000 foreign-born persons with some form of ‘tertiary education,’ such as college or vocational school, reside in Sweden, which posted a jobless rate of 8.2 percent in January.

This influx shows no signs of slowing down, with Ministry estimates showing that Sweden receives an annual net addition of anywhere between 4,500 and 10,000 immigrants who possess post-secondary education and are of working age.

The majority of people tend to flock to the same places in the hope of securing a job. About 85 percent of Sweden’s 9 million-strong population live in the south of the country with about 1.9 million of them living in the greater Stockholm area.

An important step in positioning yourself as a exceptional candidate and hopefully securing a job is having your diploma, certifications and any other relevant qualifications translated and equated into Swedish standards.

According to Swedish law, every person has the right to have their education validated through the Employment Agency, which decides if professional experience and educational credentials should be recognized.

Once reviewed, the agency also makes recommendations, if necessary, for supplementary courses needed in order to attain an equal and valid education according to the Swedish system.

Yet this is no golden quick-fix, with the process of getting diplomas, certifications and experiences verified, or discrepancies identified and thus registered into any needed courses, not known for being especially swift.

“Although there is no precise information, it can be said that it will roughly take an average five or six months just to get a diploma verified, but average times vary widely,” says Catharina Bildt, Political Advisor to Sweden’s Minister of Integration, which is based at the Ministry of Employment.

In fact, the validation process became so infamous for its lengthy average turnover time that the Ministry of Employment received around 20 million kronor ($3 million) annually over a 3-year period from 2007 to improve and speed up the process.

“It still takes too long for a person with a degree to get a qualified job and that is sometimes due to a delay in this validation process,” Bildt says of the situation after the initiative's conclusion. “We need to speed up the process even more.”

While this step is deemed important by authorities and in theory sounds essential, the practical effects of it leading to a secured job aren’t really known.

“There are no Swedish evaluations about the efficiency of having one’s credentials verified,” admits Bildt, who also concedes that there is a lot work yet to be done to make it easier for employers to trust foreign education credentials.

As in most countries, Sweden requires special permits or certifications for certain professions, such as healthcare workers, lawyers, veterinarians, electrical contractors and public school teachers.

In total, Sweden requires some type of licence or registered status for an estimated 30 professions, 21 of which are within the healthcare sector.

Educational background and prior experience are the main requirements for earning the appropriate licences.

The foreign documents’ translation and content must be approved by the proper national authorities, such as the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen), National Electrical Safety Board (Elsäkerhetsverket), or the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket) before work can be sought in the field.

Former president of the International Physicians in Sweden, Dr. Heba Shemais, warns that it can take more than seven years for educated, experienced doctors from outside the EU to complete all the necessary steps toward earning their licence in Sweden before they can begin seeking work.

“When I moved to Sweden from Egypt, I was shocked that I couldn’t work as a doctor and had to repeat some of my training and education,” says Shemais, who had worked for 10 months as a licensed gynaecological physician in Cairo before moving and, after more than 15 years in Sweden, is now the head of the anaesthesiology department at Södertälje Hospital.

Shemais’ experience consisted of a daily 50-minute train ride to Uppsala for three months to study Swedish for medical professionals, and once adequately fluent had to repeat her internship, then spent two years in geriatrics and finally was able to take an exhaustive, comprehensive 3-day clinical exam in Swedish before being granted her licence.

“I could never accept that I wouldn’t work again until I passed that test,” she says.

“I am a person who never gives up and I learned to take the difficulties and jump the obstacles. I wasn’t willing to leave my profession because of Sweden’s rules. But today it’s not so easy.”

Although today’s process for international doctors seeking licence to practice in Sweden has changed, Shemais says it’s not necessarily all for the better.

“If you’re a doctor coming from outside the EU and have worked for 10 or 15 years as a specialist in your home country, you will still have to repeat your specialist training,” she says, adding that due to limited space and tight budgets, it can take more than five years before the appropriate licence is attained.

Shemais says that as demand for qualified professionals with varied experiences rise with the changing make up of Sweden's multi-national population, it is paramount that the situation is improved.

“Sweden is changing. And we need foreign professionals working in their respective fields to better assist and provide services for the many nationalities now found here – it should be made much easier and much quicker,” says Shemais, who jokes that it could take foreign physicians 100 years before they have all the components needed to begin work.

While the road to finding a job may be long, arduous and at times discouraging, the most common advice given is to start this validation process as early as possible and to learn Swedish as quickly as possible.

“If you are able to speak good Swedish, you are well on your way,” Shemais says.


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