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.
An ever more globalised society has brought an increase in mobility across borders; people relocating to new countries for a series of reasons that nonetheless share the necessity of finding a job and integrating in their new country of residence.
Creating a network is important in finding work opportunities: Stockholm's municipality therefore runs a mentorship project to help newly arrived connect with locals with the goal of helping them integrate into the job market.
Swedish work culture
Alec is a British immigrant living in Sweden for over 10 years. He sees it as difficult to break into some sectors within the Swedish workforce, as Sweden is a relatively small country and as a result: “There is a greater need to break into these close-knit circles through networking and connections”.
While language can be a barrier, many speak English. More important are the often unwritten norms that shape society, and the workplace is no exception.
A social network is one of the factors that can help you land your dream job. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
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Ella Johansson is a professor in Ethnology at Uppsala University and she points out that many ways of doing things in Sweden might be hard for a foreigner to understand: “An example is when someone says something that is not clear or that the other person does not agree with; instead of asking to repeat or voicing a divergence in opinions, many prefer to simply stay silent.”
“This behaviour is of course confusing and saddening when directed to other Swedes too, although they hardly realise how downright rude and stupid it appears to the rest of the world,” remarks Johansson.
Integration via work-networks
Stockholm's mentorship scheme aims to bridge this divide by connecting newly arrived migrants with locals who have several years of experience in the Swedish work market.
Ulrika Hällgren is project manager of the initiative and she outlines how the initiative works: “We help as many people as possible to find a mentor, with whom the newly arrived meets once a month over an eight-month period.”
According to their statistics, up to 30 percent of participants find a job before the end of the programme and others do so afterwards, although they do not yet have any follow-up data on exactly how many, something Hällgren thinks could be improved for future editions.
Some former participants even become mentors themselves, advising employers who want to hire more foreigners on the cultural differences in order to facilitate integrating people from different backgrounds into the workforce.
Among the first mentors to sign up to the scheme in Stockholm, was Kristofer Erlandsson, a retired businessman with international experience who also chairs the Swedish Autism and Asperger society (Autism- och Aspergerförbundet) and is a senior member of international professional network Rotary.
Erlandsson believes the scheme is useful as “there are a lot of social codes to figure out in Swedish society”, which he says was a big part of the conversations he had with his mentees. Knowing how to navigate these cues can be a 'make it or break it' in social contexts leading to a work position.
It is also a question of trust, continues Erlandsson. As Sweden has very strong workers' rights, employers want to make sure that the person they are hiring is reliable and that they would fit well within the workforce. The mentorship also helps in creating a connection that could then be used as a reference for a work application.
A scheme for all migrants
This initiative is for all kinds of migrants, including those from other EU countries. Silvia A Carretta is a 30-year-old Italian lawyer who has been living in Sweden since 2018. She applied for the mentorship programme because she wanted to understand how the legal sector worked in Sweden, and Erlandsson was her mentor.
The things she most appreciated from the mentorship were: “The opportunity to learn from someone with many years of business experience in Sweden.”
“Kristofer was very open to share his past experience and to discuss the many cultural differences between Italy and Sweden when speaking of the workplace, the unwritten rules and the relationship with colleagues.”
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Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, mentoring sessions have moved from meeting up for a typical 'Swedish fika' in cafes, to having the sessions over video call. As is the case for many digital meetings, this has made it more convenient to participate in the sessions, as participants did not need to commute into the centre specifically for the occasion, however, it also made the sessions more formal and to the point, according to Erlandsson.
The main limitation of the initiative is that it is “picking the low-hanging fruits”, says Erlandsson, in other words offering support to the people who may need it less than others. He explains that introducing people with higher education to the labour market is a considerably easier task than helping people with lower education, or who are even illiterate, find a job when just learning Swedish is a challenge.
However other initiatives for blue-collar workers have also been implemented, such as Swedish language courses combined with professional training, (Svenska för yrkesutbildade), where they can learn different skills aimed at opening career opportunities such as baking, bus driving or working in healthcare.
The matchmaking process was not always successful in connecting mentors to migrants with similar professional interests. Former participant Carretta said that she had several law-related questions she wished to ask, however as Erlandsson did not have a legal background it was not possible to do so.
The initiative has still inspired similar programmes in other cities across Sweden, some arranged by local authorities and others led by NGOs, such as Rotary, which organised a scheme in Uppsala.
This idea has even spread within student societies; E2E Engineer to Engineer is a platform developed within the local section of Engineers Without Borders, which enables newly arrived professionals to network and gain the necessary tools to enter the Swedish labour market. One of the minds behind this project is Carl Johan Casten Carlberg, a 26-year-old Uppsala University student who was awarded 'Student of the Year 2019' for his accomplishments.
“We wanted to contribute to a labour market with equal opportunities for everyone. By creating E2E, we thought we actually could impact our participants in a positive manner,” he says.
In Sweden the workplace plays a fundamental role in people's lives and identity so schemes that aim to facilitate entering the job market could prove to be a successful strategy not only for finding employment but also for integrating more broadly into Swedish society.
It is often difficult to integrate in a new country as adults and similar schemes could be potentially replicated in other countries too, says project manager Ulrika Hällgren. “I would like to sign up to a similar scheme if I were to move to say, for example, Spain, I think it's a great way to meet people.”
Alexander Maxia is a British-Italian freelance journalist based in Sweden. He also runs the cultural project Lost in a Cup, with the aim of bringing academic research into broader society's debates.