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.

Swedish firms 'clueless' about foreign graduates

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).

SEE ALSO: Click here for the latest listings for jobs in Sweden

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

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”