Sweden’s foreign professionals suffer a multicultural learning curve

Sweden's foreign professionals suffer a multicultural learning curve
Despite Sweden being an increasingly multicultural country, too many highly-educated foreign professionals remain out of work due to hang-ups about language and background, argues contributor Lisa Mikulski.

Sweden is on a multicultural learning curve. Despite the lasting stereotype that all Swedes are blond and blue-eyed, Sweden is increasingly a multicultural country. With a liberal and accepting policy on immigration, Sweden opens its arms to thousands of migrants and refugees from around the world. People flock here to find relief, a better life, work, or to be with their Swedish partners. But building a life in Sweden isn't easy, and many immigrants flounder, despite trying to master the language and their unceasing efforts to find employment.

What does it take to procure a job in Sweden? Many believe that hard work and persistence ultimately pay off. However, many frustrated immigrant job seekers get the sense that the only way to get a job in Sweden is to be Swedish. Or very lucky.

While that conclusion may a bit harsh, Swedish authorities can be seen as sending mixed messages to those arriving to start a life in Sweden. If you arrive in Sweden as a refugee, the state often provides an apartment as well as economic support. That’s lovely. And a very humane thing to do.

But what about college educated professionals from Spain, the US, or South Africa? What if you're not a refugee and have come instead as a trailing spouse or for the love of a good Swedish partner? In that case, there isn't much help for you.

Too many trailing spouses and partners of Swedish citizens who come here for love aren't working, leaving them dependent on support (financial and otherwise) from their partners. For many, the situation persists for years, resulting in frustration that can infect all aspects of their lives.

When I visited my advisor at the Swedish employment service, Arbetsförmedlingen, and explained what I'd been doing to start my business in Gothenburg, he looked at me at said he'd have advised me to do everything I’ve already done.

"Is there anything else Arbetsförmedlingen can help me with?" I asked. "Do you have any other resources or suggestions?"

"We can’t help you with that," he replied. "Perhaps you should Google it."

In the 18 months I've spent in Gothenburg so far, I've met plenty of highly-educated professionals – doctors, engineers, teachers – from other countries who cannot find work in their chosen fields. Moreover, many of these capable and competent people are told they'd even have a hard time washing dishes if they don't speak Swedish fluently.

These people are trying, as I have, by enrolling in Swedish for immigrant (SFI) language classes. But that doesn't seem to be enough to entice Swedish employers to get past these immigrants' less-than-perfect Swedish and see the other skills they have to offer.

This restrictive attitude among hiring managers poses a major problem for Sweden's efforts to paint itself as a place eager to attract and keep foreign talent. If Sweden truly wants new residents to succeed, companies need to learn to stop using knowledge of the Swedish language as a measuring stick for what talented immigrants have to offer.

I've heard too many stories from expats who've sent hundreds of resumes without getting so much as a call back. They are confused, frustrated, and starting to get angry. The longer that educated and talented foreign professionals remain un- (or under-) employed in Sweden, the more everyone stands to lose.

One woman I met at SFI taught English for several years in Japan. She moved to Gothenburg and after 15 months could still not find work. She has since moved to Kuwait where she teaches English. Who knows what she might have been able to contribute to Sweden had she been given a chance to shine?

Sweden can't afford to have a population of highly educated and unemployed immigrants. The country has done a wonderful job at opening its heart to foreigners, but now Swedes must open their eyes. This country is a multicultural one, but to make it work, everyone – those born in Sweden, those born abroad, everyone who lives here – must make the journey on Sweden's multicultural learning curve together. Together we can all benefit from our diverse range of knowledge, cultures, and varying. The journey will only make Sweden, and all its residents, stronger. But everyone must embrace the opportunity together.

Lisa Mikulski was born and raised in the United States and currently lives in Gothenburg where she works as a freelance writer and photographer. Follow her on Twitter here.

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