Trevor Adams has seen the good and the bad of the Swedish labour market. But he is living proof that gumption and persistence can get you a long way. In just three years, the 23-year-old has gone from being let go from his first job to running his own fast food franchise in the capital.
“My Swedish girlfriend did an exchange in the United States, that's how we met. When she went back we did long distance for two years before I followed. I didn't have any other motives, I just wanted to go there,” he tells The Local.
In Stockholm he landed a job washing dishes at a restaurant. But when the contract ended after six months he was told it would not be renewed.
“That was my first experience of new-start job abuse. I was led on by being told I was doing well and I felt my career was working. Then December came and they told me I couldn't continue. It was quite a blow, but they said they couldn't afford to pay me any more.”
The new-start job scheme was introduced by Sweden's former centre-right government in 2007 and essentially works as follows: an employer cashes in extra funding from the state if they hire someone for six months who has been off the labour market for a longer period.
Proponents say it helps long-term unemployed get back into work. Opponents argue it leads to abuse of the system, with many going from one six-month contract to the next without getting a permanent place. For Adams, it was a bit of both.
“It worked out for me in the end, but I've seen both sides and I know 20 others it hasn't worked out for,” says Adams, who employs people through the new-start scheme at own his restaurant today. But he would like the Swedish process of applying for jobs to be less formalized.
“When we work with 'Arbetsförmedlingen' [the Swedish job centre] at my restaurant today we get a heap of mass CVs. If they were to help more it would be to encourage people to go and meet their employer instead. I hired one Canadian who just walked in and gave me a CV. She didn't speak any Swedish, but she managed to impress me.”
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But not all foreigners find it easy breaking into the Swedish labour market. While many are quick to compliment its good points, others say bureaucratic hurdles and employers requiring near perfect language skills mean they constantly find themselves cast aside in favour of native Swedes.
Adams says that rather than spending their time struggling to navigate the intricacies of the system and melting in with the Swedes, expats and immigrants should highlight the very weakness that makes them stand out: their foreignness.
“For me, I found, or realized, that 'okay, I'm an American, what can I bring to the Swedish workforce that is unique?' I'm friendly and outgoing and the answer was: American customer service.”
His approach eventually won him a foot through the door at international fast food restaurant chain Subway through another new-start scheme. This time, instead of being let go after six months, he was promoted.
Once on the ladder, Adams began climbing, and was soon thereafter asked to take over the franchise he owns today in Stockholm's upmarket Östermalm district.
He says he has strived to bring personalized American customer service – the one he knows from his home town of Salt Lake City in Utah – to the capital's restaurant scene.
“My best comparison is if you look at [Scandinavian] SAS versus [American] Delta airlines. SAS is very formal – 'you're going to have dinner at this time and sleep at this time' – as are most Swedish restaurants. But at Delta they're going up and down the aisles checking on customers: 'Did you enjoy your meal? How can I make this experience better for you?'”
“Foreigners should think about what they can bring of their culture. Sweden is a mixing pot of nationalities, all with different skills and experiences, and there is always going to be a niche for you. It doesn't mean you should not try to assimilate, but focus less on that and more on asking yourself 'what's in my blood, what can I bring to the table?'” he says.
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However, he admits that he would still advise fellow expats to learn Swedish as soon as possible. Adam feels his limited language skills at the start of his career climb weighed him down at first.
“Very much so. In your first year you're treated as a novelty; they'll ask you questions like 'what's the US like and how is it different from Sweden' and then they'll just stop. Even though Swedes speak English they will only speak it to you up to a certain point and I felt very secluded,” he says.
Being almost fluent today, thanks to grabbing every chance to practise the language in his daily work and immersing himself in Swedish culture through his girlfriend, he has no plans of leaving any time soon.
“I've seen a lot of things that I'm very impressed with. I enjoy the Swedish work ethic. We work hard and get stuff done but we don't overwork ourselves,” he says. “And in my experience people are actually very open and friendly to newcomers.”
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