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Job-related Swedish language training boosts employment

Job-related Swedish language training boosts employment

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Several larger municipalities in Sweden are making Swedish lessons for immigrants more targeted to the labour market. Language lessons are mixed with practical learning. Örebro municipality west of Stockholm represents one example where vocational education is mixed with language lessons.

Last week the Swedish parliamentary committee on the labour market visited Lillåns Bleck & Plåt, a sheet metal manufacturer in Örebro. The committee members came to see owner Stefan Öberg and study his company's training programme for sheet metal workers. The employment service and municipalities run 'Språk och framtid' ('Language and future') which provides Swedish language lessons for immigrants, commonly referred to as Sfi.

The story begins in a taxi. Every time Stefan Öberg was in one it struck him how most taxi  drivers were foreign and that they very often were highly educated from their home countries.

"I thought we Swedes are completely failing when it comes to appreciating the skills which foreign people bring with them. I also started wondering what it would mean to my company if these people, who seemed to have their heads screwed on right, were to come and work there," says Stefan Öberg.


His immediate thought was that it should be possible to perform some sort of cross-pollination between these immigrant's skills and knowledge and his own trade's need for labour. He contacted the employment service and presented his idea. "Go home and draw up a course plan," he was told, and Stefan Öberg did just that. It contained 40 weeks of education for sheet metal workers as well as occupational mathematics, physical exercise and occupational Swedish lessons. The course plan was agreed with trade organisations within the sheet metal industry and both trade unions and employers gave their go-ahead. There is a great lack of sheet metal workers in Sweden.

Experts and researchers share Stefan Öbergs view that Sweden does not look after the skills immigrants take with them when they arrive in the country. A fresh report from Sweden's National Audit Office concludes it takes far too long for foreign academics to get a foothold in the labour market, and that the government must act to change this - not least in the face of current demographic developments. 

There is also broad agreement that good Swedish skills are crucial for people who want to live and work in Sweden. The question is how to best learn the language. Sweden's municipalities are responsible for Swedish lessons for immigrants, known as Sfi. There are major differences between municipalities in how they choose to organise language courses, a fact confirmed in a new report from the Swedish School Inspectorate. The differences are necessary because of local variations, says Roy Melchert at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. He is aware that the Sfi courses often get the blame for poor integration, but thinks one of the problems is conflicting aims within the language training itself.  

"Language courses suffer from a double command structure because they must both achieve certain educational goals while also helping the immigrant approach the labour market. Students face conflicting aims of obtaining good grades and of getting established in the labour market," says Roy Melchert.

Not relevant

Sfi has been criticised for teaching Swedish which has not been relevant to working life - you're expected to first learn the language, then find a job. It's also been criticised for mixing highly educated immigrants with illiterates in language classes. 

Christopher von Stedingk heads Sfi at Örebro municipality, and he confirms Sfi lessons have an image problem - they're considered old fashioned and boring. Yet many municipalities have organised their Swedish for immigrants lessons in a different way. Örebro made changes six years ago, when Sfi lessons joined forces with the labour market department to create an Sfi with a clear introduction to the labour market.

"Everything we do now is focused on shortening the process of becoming self-sufficient and we enjoy close and good cooperation with the employment service and local businesses. Sfi used to provide far too much pampering, and we want to give people support rather than hand-outs," says Christopher von Stedingk. 

Teachers, job coaches and student councillors work together and regardless of the reasons a person signs up to Sfi each applicant starts off with an interview which will map his or her previous education and other skills.

The job coaches organise work practice so the language course students get a taste of the Swedish labour market as early on as possible. Then focus shifts to how to best make sure students can progress.

Lessons in parallel

Sfi cooperates with the employment service and businesses to organise vocational training within trades that are short on labour, combining education, practical skills and Swedish language training. The first such project involved courier company DHL which needed professional drivers. All Sfi students with driving licences were invited to apply and the courier company ran interviews together with the municipality. Those who were taken on were given full time driving training, and Swedish lessons happened in parallel because an Sfi tutor would follow the participants full time. Now, some years later, all have jobs and support themselves. There is similar training programmes combining vocational training and Swedish lessons within the painter/decorator trade, in sheet metal manufacturing, health care and in retail. The results are good.

"The key to success making sure there is good chances of progress and that there is competition for vocational training spaces. Being pampered by the state can't compete with being able to prove yourself and feeling like you've been chosen. This gives people pride," says Christopher von Stedingk. 

In his experience languages are best learnt in real situations. In a school setting you can put together the pieces to the jigsaw, but in a real job you learn what you need to survive in everyday life. You can't beat it, says Christopher von Stedingk. His aim now is to spread the model and he has applied for EU funds together with municipalities from seven countries, among them Norway, Finland and Denmark. 

The employment service accepted the course plan drawn up by Stefan Öberg at Lillåns Bleck & Plåt. With an acute lack of work placements, Stefan Öberg chose to train instructors who could guide the students.

"The tempo is now so high that businesses and their employees can't take on any more trainees. This is a problem across the board so we have to find new solutions," he says.

Twelve applicants were chosen to take the 61 week long course, where Sfi tutors came to the work place several times a week to teach there. They finished last summer and now eleven of those students work for his company.

Different from a classroom

"It is very important to speed up language training both for the job but also for people's social life. You do that by making people to talk Swedish in the workplace. This is different from sitting in a classroom and then going home to your own environment," he says. The same day he gives this interview he is about to sign another agreement with the employment service for a similar course. 

Shortening the road

"Everything we now do is aimed at shortening the road to self-sufficiency and we enjoy close and good cooperation with the Public Employment Service and local businesses," says Christopher von Stedingk, head for Sfi at Örebro municipality


Swedish language lessons for immigrants - known as Sfi - is a municipal responsibility. Those who sign up should be offered lessons within three months. Municipalities can deliver the service themselves, or buy it from external providers. Sfi has four levels, A through to D, where A is basic Swedish lessons aimed at illiterates. 

Sfi has come in for a lot of criticism over poor results and is partly blamed for the fact that it takes on average seven years for an immigrant to assimilate into the Swedish labour market. There have been several reviews of the service. A Swedish School Inspectorate report in March concluded municipalities aren't giving Sfi a high enough priority. The Swedish National Audit Office recently presented a survey which concluded that it took far too long for foreign academics to get a foothold in the labour market. 

The Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) presented a report last summer which showed immigrants who do not choose Sfi manage as well or better during their first ten years in Sweden as those who do attend language lessons. After ten years, however, five percent more of those who attended Sfi had found work. Sfi lessons proved particularly beneficial to women and to people with poor education.


Swedish School Inspectorate

The Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation

The Swedish National Audit Office (in Swedish)

The reports can be found using the search word Sfi.


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