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Joint Nordic drive for more foreign labour

| Text: Marie Preisler

Nordic cooperation could help market the region as an attractive labour market for highly educated third-country nationals.

To an Indian or Chinese specialist the Nordic labour markets will seem very similar. It could be of great benefit to the Nordic countries to coordinate knowledge on recruitment from third-countries and develop a joint marketing of the Nordic region to highly skilled labour from outside the EU. 

These were the conclusions at the end of a Copenhagen conference on how Nordic companies can attract and retain highly educated foreign labour. The conference gathered representatives from Nordic authorities, researchers and the parties to the labour market. 

"It makes sense to coordinate measures and to cooperate on things like how to attract foreign labour. The Nordic Council of Ministers are branding Nordic culture and food - why not also the Nordic labour market," suggested Bo Smith, Permanent Secretary at the Danish Ministry of Employment.

Marianne Hansen head's Workindenmark, one of the Danish government's foreign job recruitment centres. She agrees with Mr Smith.

"When an Indian engineer leaves Denmark to continue a career in a different country it would be better if he went to Norway rather than the USA. We could improve our strategy and start looking at the Nordic labour markets as one and the same, and pool our efforts to recruit labour from certain countries. Such cooperation could prove very exciting," said Ms Hansen.   

Shared challenges

The conference was organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Danish Ministry of Employment. Participants were presented with the main conclusions from the brand new report "Recruitment of highly skilled labour from third-countries to the Nordic countries: Regulations, policies and realities". The report was made by researchers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway on commission from the Nordic Council of Ministers and a range of Nordic engineering and employee organisations. It documents how the Nordic countries all wish to change legislation that stops foreigners from securing jobs and residence permits, when these workers want jobs that authorities and businesses struggle to fill. Strategies differ, but the challenges are the same, the report says.  

All western countries a wooing the best brains, and the Nordic region is not necessarily top of the list for qualified workers. Therefore the researchers are suggesting Nordic cooperation. Nana Wesley Hansen from Copenhagen University's FAOS research centre says it is important to have common rules and to join together to highlight the Nordic labour market's many qualities. She is a co-author to the report's chapter on Denmark's drive to recruit and hold on to foreign labour, and has also written the report's resume.

Wesley Hansen"The Nordic countries face the same challenges: to attract the right kind of labour, to ease administrative obstacles and to make it desirable for foreign employees to be here. And when our report finds no particular sign of competition for foreign labour between the Nordic countries, it is obvious that they should enter a dialogue on wider cooperation," says Nana Wesley Hansen.

The report shows Sweden is best at attracting third-country labour, while Norway attracts the most EU citizens. For each foreign worker who comes to Denmark to work, four go to Sweden - despite the fact that Denmark offers higher salaries and lower taxes.

The report does not say which country is the best foreign labour recruiter. But the researchers from FAOS, Fafo and Uppsala University guess Norway's high wages makes the country particularly attractive to EU citizens, while Sweden's many large companies make that country a good starting point for labour recruitment from countries outside of the EU and the Nordic region. 

A new way of looking at foreign labour

The Nordic countries are changing more than their regulations these days. There is also a pan-Nordic tendency of looking at foreign labour in a new, more positive way - despite the economic crisis and high unemployment. Bo Smith at the Danish Ministry of Employment calls the development in Denmark a paradigm shift which began with the eastwards expansion of the EU. 

Many Nordic trade unions have also changed their attitude to foreign labour and seem to be less worried about social dumping than before. Several Nordic engineering unions have helped finance the Nordic Council of Ministers' report on the recruitment of third-country nationals. Among them is the Norwegian Society of Engineers and Technologists. Their president Marit Stykke is in no doubt that third-country recruitment is necessary:

"It might seem strange that we as a trade union are involved in the recruitment of foreign labour, but it is important to be aware of the issues challenging our members. And this issue is as relevant as ever despite the economic downturn. We cannot remain attractive without importing labour.'

Marit Stykke predicts an enormous need for technology in the future, and that means more foreign competence will be needed if Nordic businesses and the small, vulnerable Nordic economies are to survive in international markets. 

Jobs for partners

Recruiting workers is one thing. The next step is to keep them, and that also means active and targeted measures. The Copenhagen conference also looked at ways to offer new foreign employees a good start in their new career, and what is needed to retain the new workers.

New foreign employees will need help to find a place to live and help to communicate with authorities in order to get on the tax register, find a GP and perhaps find a school for their children. Danish authorities are making this easier by introducing so-called one-stop-shops, where foreign workers can sort out all official business in one place. 

Several of the conference speakers pointed out that it is even more important for new workers that their partner finds a job and a network, and that there are enough spaces at international schools. All studies point to the importance of workers' personal well-being if you want them to stay.

Marianne Hansen from Workindenmark says eight out of ten foreign employees who leave Denmark do so because their partner is unhappy. The best guarantee for keeping a foreign worker is to find a job for his or her partner. As a consequence, Workindenmark uses a lot of resources to help partners hunt for jobs through a partner job-seeking network, and offers courses in how to write CVs.

The centres also work with expat networks and urge families to take part in social events with other foreigners. It is common for workers in the Nordic countries to hurry home to their families at the end of the working day, which means it is even more important for foreign workers to develop their private relationships with their Nordic colleagues. 

Focus on families

Norwegian web company Opera Software employs people from 54 countries in their Oslo office. They have a system of mentors who guide new foreign employees through SelnesNorway's bureaucracy. The company has also established a special expat team that organises social events and parties to make sure its many foreign employees don't have to spend important dates like Christmas and new year's eve alone. 

Tove Selnes is head of human resources at Opera Software, and told the Nordic Council of Ministers' conference that despite the easing of some rules, authorities still sometimes use months to process applications for visa and work permits from third-country applicants.

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the company ABB said the same. ABB has 120,000 workers in 100 countries, and needs some 400 work permits every year. Gunilla Kjell is their International Assignment Specialist. She reckons the administrative process time has fallen from some three months to three weeks, but that it still is difficult to move people around and to gather the engineering know-how which her company needs. 

The researchers behind the report recommend politicians consider extending the duration of work permits beyond what is possible today. That would help retain more foreign employees. Jan Rose Skaksen, professor at the Copenhagen Business School, agrees. He is a member of the Danish government's Growth Forum, and has suggested making Denmark's green card scheme less complicated as well as extending foreign researchers' right to stay to five years, on low taxation. In return rules could be tightened to avoid more Danes exploiting the rule, he suggests.

The professor encourages the Nordic countries to do much more to brand themselves as  family friendly.

"The Nordic countries are fabulous places to live as a family, and I cannot understand why this quality is not highlighted more than it is. The Nordic countries should take advantage of this, for instance by creating more places at international schools so that foreign families no longer have to leave the country once their children reach school age."

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