Sweden’s Learning Curve
Sweden is on a multicultural learning curve. With a liberal and accepting policy on immigration, Sweden opens it’s arms to thousands of immigrants and refugees from around the world. People flock here to find relief, a better life, work, and the opportunity for Swedish utopia. But once attempting to make a life on the Scandinavian soil, some immigrants find they flounder. It isn’t necessarily because of a language barrier or because they aren’t trying to look for work.
An expat friend said to me, “Why should Sweden GIVE people from other countries work?” “Well,” I answer, “because Sweden has accepted these people as residents or refugees, and everyone deserves the right to make a living. The right to meaningfully contribute to the work force is not a GIFT.”
What does it take to procure a job in Sweden? Many believe that hard work and persistence will provide. However, it seems that in order to get a job in Sweden, one must be Swedish … or very lucky. This sounds harsh. I’m saddened to find myself writing it. So let me say here and now, if there are those of you who disagree, please let’s have the discussion.
Having said this, if you arrive in Sweden as a refugee, the state will very generously provide you (and your family) with an apartment, a washer, a drier, and a monthly stipend. You will get money for transportation, daily newspaper, groceries, and even a membership to the gym. That’s lovely. And a very humane thing to do. But what if one is a college educated professional from Spain, Switzerland, Africa, or the U.S? What if you are not a refugee and have come instead as a trailing spouse or for the love of a good Swedish partner? In that case, there is not much help for you.
Most of the trailing spouses, and partners of Swedish citizens who came here for love, are not working and are having to be supported by their partner. This can go on for years! Most of them are not okay with that.
I visited my advisor at Arbetsförmedlingen (the Swedish employment office) ten days ago. I sat across from his desk and outlined the work I had been doing to start my business here in Gothenburg. He was impressed. He expressed that he would have advised me to do everything I’ve already done. When I asked him, “Is there anything else Arbetsförmedlingen can help me with?” “Do you have any other resources or suggestions?”. His answer, “We can’t help you with that. Perhaps you should Google it.”
The first thing one learns when arriving in Sweden is that you MUST learn Swedish. Ok, I get that. New residents in Sweden should make it a first responsibility to learn the language and to integrate into their new country. I have spent the last 18 months embracing, sometimes roughly navigating, this culture and it’s language. I have also spent the last 17 months relentlessly attempting to recreate my business here. If I worked in the U.S. as hard as I’ve worked in Gothenburg trying to find work, I’d have twenty clients at this point. I’m finding it difficult to push a boulder up this mountain.
I have met many expats who have come to Gothenburg. These are highly educated professionals … doctors, engineers, teachers, IT professionals. They can not find work in their chosen fields and are told that in order to obtain a job merely washing dishes (because any job is a good job, right?) they must speak fluent Swedish. They attend SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) where they have learned, or are learning, the language. But even after doing so, it seems that Sweden still can’t bring itself to hire them … not even as a dish washer. This is a major problem with those in the position of hiring. I believe the state of Sweden truly wants it’s new residents to be successful, or so they say, but there is a huge disconnect in those wanting work and those providing it.
Some of the expats I have spoken with have explained that they haven’t worked in years since arriving in Sweden. I have read scores of articles reporting the same opinions and facts. (Here is one example, here is another, and one more.) As newcomers to Scandinavia, they have submitted hundreds (yes, hundreds) of applications and resumes without response let alone the hope of an interview. They are confused, and they are starting to get frustrated and angry.
I had a friend in SFI. Prior to coming to Sweden to marry her fiancé, she taught English for several years in Japan. She moved to Gothenburg and after 15 months she still could not find work. “I must be able to work,” she explained. She has since moved to Kuwait where she teaches English.
The educational rankings in Sweden are tanking. Between 2003 and 2013, Sweden’s educational rankings have plummeted to what is now being called a national crisis situation. Politicians bat the ball between themselves musing as to whether this is a local issue or a national one. Who should be responsible for curing the educational woes which now plague Sweden?
“Perhaps teachers should be paid more,” they wonder. Yes, teachers should be paid excellent salaries. But there seems to be a shortage of teachers. Well, here’s a thought. Why not instead of keeping that science teacher (college educated in the U.S.) unemployed … why not give her a try? I am sure she’d be thrilled to have a job at even a starting salary. And what better way to assist someone in becoming fluent in the language then to provide the opportunity for complete immersion? Isolation is not going to help anyone’s language skills.
Ohhhh, insular Sweden!! You have opened your heart, now open your eyes. You are a multicultural country whether you like it or not, and to continue your positive existence you must travail the learning curve. The great beauty of multiculturalism is that a country can benefit from new knowledge, new cultures, and different perspectives in art, science, business, and technology. This will not make you weaker but stronger, if you only embrace the opportunity. You can not continue to support a nation of highly educated unemployed immigrants who struggle to find work which has been made unavailable to them.
This article republished at The Local – Sweden Feb 14, 2014, and the print edition of Nordstjernan issue 05, 2014
Writer/photographer Lisa Mikulski. Available for print or online publications and business in the Nordic region, Europe, and the U.S. Editorial, features, marketing copy, and public relations. Contact me here or at lisa @ 2sweden4love.com