This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
When Nahla Elamin arrived in Sweden with her three-year-old daughter, she had little expectation for what was coming. She had decided to leave Sudan some months before, following the death of her husband. “The situation for single mothers and women in my country is not very welcoming,” she recalled over Zoom, “so I took my daughter and left the country.”
In Sudan, Elamin had been working as a mechanical engineer for a large multinational organisation. She spoke fluent English and could travel to Europe for her work.
“I decided to move to Sweden because I didn't know anybody there, so I picked the country furthest away,” she said. “I didn't expect life to be easy, because I knew I was starting from zero, but things turned out much better than expected.” After 11 months, Elamin was granted asylum. She found a small apartment for her daughter and herself. She learned Swedish. Things were going well.
Then, she decided to find a job.
“For someone like me, who has worked all my life, staying at home was really bad mentally,” she remembers, “so I was really focusing on moving fast and finding my way into work. […] I applied to more than 500 jobs and all I got was rejection emails.”
Like Elamin, many migrants arriving in Sweden hold university degrees and diplomas from their countries of origin. Yet previous education achievements rarely transform into qualified jobs upon arrival. According to a report by Region Skåne, only about 15 percent of highly educated refugees and migrants aged 20-54 hold a qualified position after ten years in Sweden, not including people who move to study or to take up a job offer.
The study, which was performed during the spring 2020 and looked at people arriving from countries in Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Southeast Asia, found that education was the most important factor determining newcomers' long-term unemployment or inadequate employment.
In particular, it found that validating previous education or completing some education in Sweden both increased newcomers' chances of taking up highly qualified jobs after ten years. Other significant factors were newcomers' birth region, their date of arrival in Sweden, as well as their gender.
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At the same time, there is a structural shortage of workers in Sweden. Due to its aging population, the working-age population is decreasing, and the local workforce alone cannot meet the skill-needs of the economy. In the IT sector, for example, a deficit of approximately 70,000 qualified workers is expected by 2022. Large sectors of the economy face shortages of skilled workforce, while skilled newcomers cannot find relevant jobs.
In this context, successful integration measures must go beyond merely providing a job to newcomers. According to Katarina Mozetic, a PhD fellow at the University of Oslo who studied the labour market integration of highly educated refugees in Oslo, Malmö and Munich, “refugees do not require one-size-fits-all integration measures”.
Instead, “integration measures need to take into account the diversity among [newcomers], according for example to their age, gender as well as educational and occupational background.”
For Elamin, this meant changing career path. She talked with the unemployment officer about her situation and they advised her to join a programme aimed at becoming an IT assistant.
She recalls: “At the introduction meeting, I asked: ‘I am a mechanical engineer, what is my chance to get something like this? They told me ‘just apply. Try.' […] I had already changed country, so why not change my career as well?”
The programme, called MatchIT, is funded by the European Social Fund and run by Region Skåne together with Ideon Science Park, Lund University, Region Blekinge, Blekinge Institute of Technology and the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen).
According to Olga Szczepankiewicz, the project leader, the role of MatchIT is to link three different actors: first, employers, who are looking to hire people with specific skills. Second, newcomers, who have competences but need to adapt their knowledge to the local needs. Finally, the education system, which traditionally has difficulties offering tailored education for migrants and newcomers and is often only loosely connected with employers.
“There is a need for quick, fast, effective and high-level education for [skilled workers] from other countries,” she concludes.
Alma Orucevic, who teaches programming in MatchIT, agrees: “It is unfortunate for the countries [that these people] are leaving. At the same time, we have a deficit of workers in these areas, so we should make sure that we can recognise highly educated people to ensure they can support the Swedish economy in the future.”
Participants are selected through various interviews and logic tests, rather than according to previous diplomas. This ensures that the programme selects motivated students from a variety of backgrounds. MatchIT students come from all across the world, but the majority have travelled to Sweden from conflict zones.
After they are accepted into the programme, participants follow a 22-week training in programming, databases and web development, as well as Swedish language courses. Then, they complete a 10-week internship with a local company. At the end of the programme, participants receive a certificate from Lund University or Blekinge Institute of Technology.
Students are remunerated throughout the programme. The participants receive their remuneration through Arbetsförmedligen, with the amount they receive depending on what category they belong to in the employment service system.
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For Dalia Abdelhady, Associate Professor in Sociology at Lund University, simply matching skilled candidates with relevant employers might not be enough. “We do not have equal opportunities,” she said. “In Sweden, research shows that locals make more money, get more jobs, etc. [Yet] most integration projects and policies do not include anything about discrimination.”
While not speaking Swedish can prevent newcomers from getting employment, one of the main issues, according to Abdelhady, is trust. “The reason why people graduating from Swedish universities or high schools get better jobs than people coming from abroad is trust: ‘I know this high school […] so I can trust people coming from there,'” she said. “This will not happen when you have someone coming from a foreign country, with a foreign name.”
By connecting skilled newcomers with employers, programmes like MatchIT can help to generate this trust, for example during the mandatory internship. “Most of the interviewees […] spoke of the immense importance of internships,” confirmed Mozetic. “Often, it was precisely these job placements that led to successive employment.”
However, according to Abdelhady, integration projects often remain too one-sided: “Let's look at the receiving end [of migration] and what needs to happen there.”
MatchIT has now completed four rounds with a total of 97 participants. Although still provisional, the programme evaluation showed mixed results. In Skåne, 50 percent of the students took up relevant skilled work six months after the programme. However, in Blekinge — a region with a smaller labour market — only 7 percent of participants had found a relevant job six months following the programme.
For Szczepankiewicz, employment integration programmes could learn a lot from the experience of MatchIT. “Don't rush, get companies on board and, if the universities cannot give what companies really want, you may need to go with a different education provider that can guarantee the same quality.”
Encouraging gender equality and a diversity of backgrounds is another strength: “As some research shows, the greater variety of cultures, languages and skillset you have in a team, the greater the chances to work effectively,” said Orucevic.
Following her internship with MatchIT, Elamin found a job as an IT assistant in a large company. She is still in contact with the other MatchIT participants. For her, “networking is the most important thing. Without a network, it's very hard to get a job. That's the key.”
Léopold Salzenstein is a freelance journalist currently working in Sweden.