10 things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
10 things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent
What can Swedish companies do better? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

When The Local asked our readers for practical measures Swedish institutions and companies could take to make the country a better place for international workers, you had plenty of suggestions. Here are ten key ways foreign workers in Sweden think things could be improved.


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1. Streamline the work visa process

This was the problem most often mentioned by The Local's readers. Work permit processing times are long, and many international workers have been forced to leave the country due to minor mistakes, often made by their employer.

A court ruling in 2018 required migration officials to take an "overall assessment" in cases involving bureaucratic errors, but so-called 'talent deportations' have continued despite this. And entrepreneurs must also follow stricter rules than native Swedes; for example, they cannot take a salary cut to grow their business, even if voluntarily.

One reader said Sweden needed to introduce "clearer rules regarding the work permits and faster processing of the applications to Migrationsverket", a sentiment echoed by many others.

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Many international workers suggested that a clear time limit should be set on processing times for work permits and extensions, in order to reduce stress and give workers more freedom, since they are subject to certain limitations during processing.

Others suggested a rethink of these restrictions, such as the impossibility of overseas travel during processing, which meant workers cannot attend international conferences, for example, or visit family.

Several readers spoke about "fear" and "insecurity" linked to their work permit applications, having seen many international workers ordered to leave the country. 

2. Improve hiring practices and tackle discrimination

"Notice us," was the appeal of one reader.

"This problem of discrimination in the job market needs practical solutions, not just talking," said a respondent in Uppsala.

Several people said they had the impression that hiring managers treated applications from foreigners differently than those of native Swedes, with one saying a friend had found it much easier to get interviews after getting married and changing her name to a typically Swedish one.

"International experience isn't respected, it is discounted. Where you comes from definitely makes a difference. It is very hard to find a job in Sweden if you haven't worked here before," one Stockholm worker commented.

"It needs to be addressed at a very basic level. Companies need to be told they are to be more international. Zero tolerance for only respecting Swedish experience and only employing Swedes," stressed another reader.

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3. Educate companies on how to hire foreign workers

Several respondents suggested that more widespread information for employers would be helpful, both relating to practical aspects such as assisting with work permits, and advice on assisting with cultural differences.

"Foreign workers need more insurances than locals. Most of the employers don't know about it and the employee gets punished," said one respondent, referring to the talent deportations.

Another said that smaller companies and startups in particular often didn't know all the relevant labour and immigration laws for hiring internationals, and suggested seminars for HR managers. 

"Education seminars, mingles and more general information sessions for Swedish business owners, entrepreneurs, students as well as present and potential international workers are needed so cultural idiosyncrasies and understanding can be had. Not the run-of-the-mill job fair type interactions that are ubiquitous, but real discussions! Uncomfortable conversations need to be promoted so the written and unwritten do's and don'ts are well understood by both parties," said one entrepreneur.

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4. Introduce fast-track options for skilled foreign workers

While there were calls for the Swedish Migration Agency to speed up processing time and improve clarity in general, several suggested that a new system be introduced for highly skilled workers. Some argued that the work permit restrictions should be eased for those with in-demand skills or qualifications.

"Make special easy rules for skilled workers to attract talent," suggested Ali. "An easy route to get citizenship for skilled workers, or easy and fast track for work permit extension to make things secure for the international talent."

He moved to Sweden from Norway where he had gained permanent residence, but in Sweden needed to "start from scratch" and apply for an initial work permit. Several others were in the same position, relocating to Sweden after gaining permanent residence in other Nordic or EU countries, and people in this category suggested that Sweden introduce separate rules for people without EU/EEA citizenship but with a work history there.

"I could lose the Norwegian permanent residence [due to leaving the country] and get my visa extension refused from Sweden as well, which would be the worst case scenario for me," said Ali.

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5. Housing assistance

The Local's readers mentioned the housing crisis in Sweden's large city as a major problem for international workers; the big cities, where most English-language jobs are on offer, are all experiencing major housing shortages.

David Johnson, who works in Uppsala but currently lives in the UK, said the housing crisis was "the one thing that has put off me and my family moving".

And Manuela in Gothenburg said that the best thing Sweden could do to help international talent would be to "provide sufficient, affordable and accessible housing possibilities in close proximity to jobs."

6. Specialized Swedish classes

Many people said they were surprised at how often Swedish language skills were a requirement for jobs, particularly given the high English proficiency among Swedes. Others pointed out that this was particularly true in smaller cities and towns, and that in order to attract more international talent it would be helpful both to increase English language use outside the major cities and to offer more language training for internationals.

Sweden already offers state-subsidized language classes (known as Swedish for Immigrants or SFI), but some of The Local's readers said the waiting lists to join such a class were long.

"It is impossible to learn the language if people don't want to talk to you in Swedish," said one respondent. "So it becomes a vicious circle. It is required to speak the language to get a job but there are no ways to learn Swedish."

They suggested that more Business Swedish courses or other language courses for professionals should be offered, and that more companies should offer on-the-job language training.

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7. English-language websites for more authorities

There was a lot of praise among respondents for the English-language information and assistance available from many authorities, including the Swedish Companies Registration Office and the Swedish Tax Agency.

But readers said there was still more that Sweden could do, by improving the availability of foreign-language information on all aspects of living and working in Sweden. And while several people praised the rights of workers in Sweden, some said it was often hard for non-Swedish speakers to find out their rights.

"Have a government website in many languages dedicated to outlining your rights and have someone willing to answer questions," suggested one reader.

"I think there should be more flexibility in language in official use. Mainly when it comes to documents that discuss rules and laws; most of the information available in English just scratches the surface," one reader said.

"There's lots of details an average Swede has no idea can be difficult for a immigrant (bank accounts, understanding the insurance system, etc)," said Thomas in Stockholm, who said Sweden could improve integration. 

8. Assist with the social side of life

Integrating with the local community is especially important for job hunting in Sweden compared to other countries. 

"Job hunting is so closely related to local network," commented Vicki in Borlänge, who said that Sweden could improve by becoming "more open".

"Companies view their employees as tools or machines, but forget that we as people need a little bit of love too," said another worker.

This may be especially true of internationals who might move here solely for work with no personal connections, and many readers said they had been surprised by how introverted they found many locals to be, and how long it took them to build up a social circle.

And Quentin in Stockholm said that settling in in the capital was taking longer than expected, due to "hard winters combined with introvert Swedes".

"Integrating into local culture can be more challenging than in other places. Although not related to work directly, this may have an effect on wellbeing outside of work." noted a Stockholm employee. She suggested that workplaces could be more proactively in helping foreign hires to socialize with coworkers and by suggesting activities outside work to meet locals and other internationals.

9. Reward high performers

One respondent in Stockholm said the biggest surprise since moving to Sweden was their impression that hard work "didn't pay off but only led to more work". They suggested that companies implement more rewards for high performers in order to encourage ambitious foreign workers to stay, rather than moving to other European or other cities where salaries are higher.

Some suggested this could be linked to the Scandinavian Jantelagen and lagom mentality, which puts the focus on the community above individuals. "Rockstar performers are not recognized and their achievements are attributed to the entire team instead, so there is no motivation to move mountains," one worker commented.

Others pointed out that Sweden's high income taxes make sense for those who plan to stay in Sweden long-term and raise a family and retire there, but not for many international workers. Multiple respondents mentioned the 30 percent reimbursement ruling in the Netherlands, a tax rebate for certain skilled workers who move there for work, and suggested that Sweden could introduce a similar policy.

"High income tax doesn't make sense for foreigners who probably will not get equal benefits such as pension, elderly care unless they live in Sweden forever," said Kim, who works in Stockholm. "Sweden will never attract the top talents if they can't provide competitive salary. And it has a limit due to such a high income tax. There should be options in terms of tax return upon departure if that person would not want to receive Swedish pension at some point."

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10. Celebrate differences 

Many international workers mentioned that their differences were seen only as a negative point, with one saying foreign workers were "never accepted, only tolerated" in Sweden.

One said that working culture could be improved by changing "Swedish society's expectation that international people will have to adapt completely to fit into the market".

"Companies must stop looking for the finished product and try to discover talent. That means lowering requirements for positions and taking risks on individuals who are not 'culturally similar'," said another.

And another urged Sweden to "accept non-assimilated talent with open arms and help them integrate instead of completely rejecting them."

Ninety people responded to The Local's questionnaire about the highs and lows of working in Sweden. Click here to read more of our interviews based on the survey.

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Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
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Anonymous 2019/06/17 10:37
Thank you for this in-depth look at the issues facing internationals in Sweden. It backs up what our organisation for internationals in Helsingborg has been saying for the last 5 years, and will be helpful in explaining the challenges to other institutions!
Anonymous 2019/05/07 17:01
Thank you for your comment, Valeria, and I hope so too. If there's anything else you think we should be writing about on The Local, please let us know.
Anonymous 2019/05/07 14:46
Thank you for such a great article, I couldn't agree more. <br />Let's hope it will be an eye-opener for many companies and authorities. Whereby some of the above mentioned problems can be tackled relatively quickly, the shift in embracing the cultural differences and a better attitude towards overseas experience will, unfortunately, take much longer.

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