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The Reality of Moving to Sweden? It's Not the Utopia You Imagine

by Claire Litton Cohn Dec 7, 2016

Jobs for immigrants is a polarizing topic in Sweden; it’s tied so closely to the refugee crisis and Sweden’s immensely beneficial social safety net that even talking about jobs can make one uneasy. But there are some unsettling hard data about employment that just can’t be ignored. For example, only 53% of refugees who came to Sweden in 2003 had found full-time work by 2013, while only 30% of those who arrived two years ago had jobs. Part of this is due to Sweden’s “Svenska for invandrare” (SFI) program, which offers free Swedish language classes for immigrants — many immigrants spend their first year in Sweden taking classes and learning the language, rather than looking for work. But what about after that?

By far, the biggest obstacle newcomers face in finding work is not speaking Swedish. The level of fluency required to function, not just adequately but superlatively, in a business environment means that potential employees must prove that they would be a better choice for a job than a native Swede — a barrier that is almost impossible to clear. Two recent migrants (one from the Philippines and one from Australia) stated outright that they felt their problems finding work were entirely due to not speaking Swedish. Another migrant, Peter, moved to Trelleborg from the UK in 2004. Prior to his move, he spent 15 years in the British Army and 6 years as a property manager in London. Once in Sweden, he couldn’t get hired anywhere. He went through SFI, and then paid for privately-run svenska som andraspråk courses. After 18 months of continued unemployment, he took an unpaid internship (praktikants), which eventually led to a paid position. He said he “found it impossible to get a job without the language skills.” Barbara, who moved from France, says, “Even if you do speak Swedish, recruiters almost always prefer native speakers.”

Sweden also has rampant unemployment in specific sectors. In short, unless you have skills training, and belong to a specific career, sometimes even speaking perfect Swedish won’t open any doors for you. Universities, schools, and preschools are always struggling to find new teachers, and international schools are able to hire English-only teachers, which is a boon for anyone who is fresh off the airplane with their Masters of Education in hand. However, Barbara adds: “The English-speaking companies are swamped with immigrants’ applications, so they’re really hard to get into.” Sweden, like most countries, publishes a list of skilled workers it needs the most — immigrants in those fields are far more likely to find work faster than ones who aren’t on the list of welcome careers.

Many Swedes find jobs through their social networks, which is often an insurmountable difficulty for immigrants, who find it notoriously difficult to make friends among reticent Swedes and often end up socializing with other immigrants. Diane, who has lived in Sweden since 2012, worked as a professional chef for 15 years in the United States. When she moved to Malmo, she couldn’t get a foot in the door: “It’s very much word-of-mouth and who you know that gets you a job in a kitchen here. I have never had a hard time finding work before I moved here, and I moved around a lot in the States.” After 3.5 years of searching, she finally found work as a preschool teacher; not her area of expertise, as she originally applied for a job in the preschool’s kitchen, but they were desperate for teachers.

Of course, the elephant in the room for immigrants is discrimination. Sweden has theoretically welcomed refugees and other immigrants with relatively open arms, but on the ground, the experience can feel very unwelcoming. Immigrants report being denied access to jobs because of their names or appearance; Sweden’s housing crisis means there aren’t enough apartments for everyone, and landlords can pick and choose tenants, often resulting in those with “foreign sounding” names getting bumped to the rear.

Yafer, who moved back to Sweden to be closer to his wife’s family, says that when he first moved, he called about a job in a care facility that was desperate for unskilled workers. His Swedish was adequate but not perfect, and his name was Israeli. When he called, he was told they had no jobs available. His Swedish partner called back the moment he hung up and introduced herself in perfect Swedish and the last name Jensson… and was told they were drowning in work and asked how soon she could start. It’s an ugly reality, but simmering racism is bubbling under the surface of Sweden’s job market (as it is in most countries) and denying the role it plays in immigrants’ difficulty finding work is disingenuous.

All told, some immigrants have very positive experiences moving to the land of snow and Swedish fish. I heard from several who learned Swedish quickly, found internships which led to full-time offers after only a few months, or who were lucky enough to land with a career path or connections that opened exactly the right door. But the vast majority of those I spoke to — and Sweden’s rising unemployment numbers in the face of the housing bubble — said it was a daily struggle to find work. Diane added, “I spent four years being supported entirely by my boyfriend, and I hated it. I just wanted to work.”

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