'Getting a job in Sweden is about who you know'

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'Getting a job in Sweden is about who you know'

In the first of a new series profiling careers of foreigners who've moved to Sweden, The Local catches up with Charles Schuettinger who arrived from the US to play handball before a detour in construction eventually led to a career in sales.


While many foreigners come to Sweden for love or a concrete job opportunity, Schuettinger made the jump to Stockholm from North Carolina based on little more than a loose offer to try out for a sports team.

He'd never been to Sweden before, and spent his first weeks living in a youth hostel in central Stockholm, unsure exactly how his Swedish adventure might unfold.

All he could think when he stepped off the plane that bone-chilling January day in 2002 was, "What did I get myself into? Have I made a huge mistake?"

Now, ten years and several career changes later, Schuettinger finds himself working as an account manager at the Stockholm offices of a UK-based firm that offers training and professional development courses.

How did you land your first job?

Since my first visa was an athlete's visa, I couldn't actually work, but I eventually realized I needed to do something more than handball.

At first I went to all the big American companies and handed in my CV thinking maybe I could get a sales position of some kind.

But it was talking to the chair of the handball club that really moved things along. He approached the head of one of the team's sponsors – a construction company – and asked if they would be willing to sponsor my work permit.

It wasn't easy. We applied for a work permit with the sponsorship of the company, but then we got denied by the union, so we had to reapply and explain why hiring me didn't mean taking a job away from a Swede.

All told, it took about six months before all the paperwork got sorted out and I could start working.

Did you join a union? Was it helpful?

I joined the union and an unemployment insurance plan (a-kassa) when I worked in construction. My boss said, "Do it, you're gonna hate it, but if anything happens, you're going to be taken care of."

I later came to realize how much power they had. Once I was a member, they helped me with renewing my work visa. I also made a lot of contacts with different companies through the union.

I haven't joined a union since I switched to the sales industry, but in construction it felt good to have the security of a union since companies can fold if they lose a big contract, and the chances of getting injured are pretty high. I should know, as I suffered a workplace injury myself.

What happened?

I had a 10-metre long steel rod slam into my hip when I was trying to catch it after it had been moved by a crane. It was winter, my gloves were wet and icy, and the bar came in too fast. It moved me about 3 metres and penetrated to my hip bone. I was lucky though, if it had been a few centimetres over, it would have likely gone right through me.

I was out of commission for two months, but I didn't have to worry about paying my bills. The insurance covered 80 percent of my lost wages, and the union covered the remaining 20 percent.

After the injury, however, my girlfriend told me it was time for me to find a new job.

How did you make the change?

I started sending out resumes to see what would happen. During my search I found a listing for a job with a British company looking for a sales representative in sports. I'm passionate about sports, pretty good with people, so it was a no-brainer to apply.

I sent in my CV and didn't hear back for two weeks, so I printed out my CV, took it into the office in person and then the next day I got a call for an interview.

What was the hardest adjustment to having a career in Sweden?

As odd as it may sound, one of the hardest things for me to get used to was taking vacation, especially at the beginning.

I was used to making do with a week of vacation or so, which felt like enough. But then at the end of the year I'd still have three weeks of vacation left. I still had something like 55 days of vacation saved up at my last job when I left.

But now I've gotten used to having five weeks of vacation. I can spend two weeks back home at Christmas, take two weeks during the summer, and still have a week leftover.

How did you deal with learning the language?

Our handball coach would give instructions in Swedish and then ask someone to translate. But my teammates would also have fun with the language at my expense by giving me faulty translations.

During one of my first training sessions, my fingertips got ripped off by the glue on the ball and I asked someone how to tell the coach that there was too much glue on the ball.

He said, "Det är för mycket kuk på bollen," which, as you know, means "there is too much cock on the ball".

So I said this to the coach and he just looked at me stunned, and then everyone started laughing.

It was my first time speaking Swedish at practice, and it took me about four months to dare speak it again.

Later on when I started working construction, my colleagues were really good for helping me learn Swedish. They understood my English and they would respond in Swedish until I got more comfortable speaking.

I never took classes, I just learned on the job.

What advice would you give someone who is about to embark on a Swedish career?

First, be patient, but persistent. I think the hiring process takes a lot longer at Swedish companies. They can be slow to respond and getting through it all seems to take longer. I remember sending out resumes and hearing nothing for more than two months, by which time I'd already been hired.

Also, Sweden and Stockholm are actually pretty small and close-knit, so you want to make sure you make a good first impression. And if you have a contact, see where it goes, because you just never know. You may talk to someone who doesn't have an opening, but that person may have a golfing buddy that's the vice president of another company and he might have something.

I find it reassuring that Sweden is such a tight community. And it was through connections I made on the handball court that I got my first two jobs.

It may sound like a bit of a cliché, but it really is about who you know, even in Sweden.

Interested in sharing the story of your Swedish career with The Local?

We'd be happy to hear from you. Send an email with "My Swedish Career" in the subject line to [email protected] and we'll get in touch.

David Landes

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To read more interviews from our My Swedish Career series, please visit our archive.


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