‘Immigrants could be Sweden’s top resource’

With a large population of educated immigrants, Malmö could become Europe's Silicon Valley - but only if Sweden opens up its jobs market to foreign-born professionals, writes integration expert Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

'Immigrants could be Sweden's top resource'
Left, Malmö in southern Sweden, and right, workers in tech-hub region Silicon Valley. Photos: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu and Johan Nilsson/TT

The whole world is talking about innovation and its importance to future competitiveness, welfare and to the possibilities of solving future societal challenges.

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has created an innovation council, President Barack Obama talks about how the US must 'out-innovate' – be more creative than the rest of the world – and President Xi Jinping believes that innovation is key to the future of China.

A precondition for innovation is that a country or a region is able to attract competent people and that it cultivates and values the knowledge of those already living in the country. According to AnnaLee Saxenian, professor at the Berkeley School of Information, the success of Silicon Valley can to a great extent be attributed to its ability to attract people from emerging markets, such as India and China, and benefit from their expertise and contact with their home countries.

The Skåne region in southern Sweden and its biggest city, Malmö, is not that different from Silicon Valley: a greater part of the population is foreign-born than in the rest of the country – 36 percent in Silicon Valley compared to 19 percent in Skåne – and there are leading universities in the region.

But while Silicon Valley's diversity is seen as key to its success, Skåne battles social exclusion, segregation and high unemployment. Is that because Skåne has the “wrong” kind of immigration? Perhaps, but that's not the only reason. Even highly educated foreign-born graduates find it difficult to get on to the labour market and many Swedes returning from abroad feel that their overseas experience is neither valued nor wanted by Swedish employers.

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According to the OECD the employment gap between well-educated native and foreign-born people is much bigger in Sweden than in other OECD countries.

Educated immigrants and former Swedish expats are often told that they are overqualified. Some managers seem to feel threatened by the fact that others are better educated or have more experience. Returning Swedes feel that their careers have been damaged by their absence from the Swedish labour market.

Every day people arrive in Sweden with exactly the degrees and competence needed to plug skills gaps in Sweden: welders, engineers, teachers and people with business degrees. Many of these new arrivals speak several languages and have relevant knowledge about and networks in future growth and export markets. They come here as refugees, students, labour migrants, returnees, or love refugees such as myself. But instead of giving them jobs and the opportunity to show what they are able to do, valuable time is wasted by discussing whether their degree meets Swedish standards.

Those who move to Sweden are forced to take – sometimes poor-quality – courses to learn Swedish and must often obtain a Swedish degree on top of the one they already bring, something that costs both the newcomer and Sweden time and money. Alternatively, they are screened out of hiring processes, perhaps not out of malice, but due to a narrow view of competence and simply because managers like to hire people similar to themselves. It feels safe and you know that they will fit in.

Many Swedish workplaces and environments are still very homogeneous, even though Sweden is more of an immigration country than the US if you look at the proportion of the population born abroad (around 16 percent in Sweden compared to 13 percent in the US).

Should Sweden help foreign-born workers? Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/

According to Statistics Sweden, the proportion of graduates among those who have moved to Sweden since the year 2000 is greater than the corresponding figure for those born there – and never before have so many well-educated individuals fled to Sweden than today. How do we ensure that these people's skills are utilized, to the benefit of Sweden as well as to the immigrants themselves? How do we ensure that their competence and motivation do not wither at centres for asylum seekers?

Expertise is a perishable commodity that languishes if it is not used. Important resources are wasted in the time it takes people to establish themselves on the Swedish labour market. Could Skåne take the lead and develop a vision of skills that would turn the region into the Silicon Valley of Europe?

Germany, which accepts the highest number of asylum seekers in the EU, uses so-called talent scouts who identify refugees with in-demand degrees and skills, and help connect them and employers. German newspaper Die Zeit call refugees “talents on standby” and although not all immigrants – or Swedes, for that matter – are talents as such, the attitude sees possibilities and potential rather than problems.

My British PhD supervisor at the London School of Economics called Sweden “the most civilized country in the world”. It is in many ways a good description. The problem is only that while Sweden is one of the most open, global and welcoming countries in the world, the jobs market is too closed-off and the view of competence too narrow to be able to make use of the skills of outsiders.

Innovation is about seeing opportunities long before anybody else does and new ideas often arise from meetings between people from different backgrounds (gender, education, ethnicity). The question is if Sweden is able to change its focus and transform today's “immigration problems” to the country's greatest resource for the future.

Integration expert Sylvia Schwaag Serger is head of international strategy for Sweden's innovation agency Vinnova. This is a translation of a debate article which first appeared in the Sydsvenskan newspaper.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.