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Newly arrived depend on social networks to find jobs

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

70 percent of newly arrived people in Sweden found jobs through social networks, compared to the 16 percent who found jobs via the employment service. The employment gap between native Swedes and those born abroad is still wide, however. It is particularly hard for people those with no upper secondary education, and for women.

Shazia Mughal was born in Pakistan and dreamt of becoming a lawyer. Instead she got married at 18 and moved to Denmark with her husband.

“I landed with broken dreams. Everything was so different,” she told the participants at the conference ‘From refugees to citizens – Nordic experiences of inclusion in the labour market’ held in Stockholm in November.

When she fell pregnant she realised she needed to learn more about the society in which she lived, but where do you start? How do you learn the language? The culture? To arrive in a foreign country is a culture shock and it takes time to build the trust that you have lost.

Today Shazia Mughal is one of 600 women in a Danish group called ‘Bydelsmødre’ – or Neighbourhood Mothers. They have been successfully working to break immigrant women out of their isolation and make them active in society. There is increasing focus on the situation for newly arrived women. They struggle more to find work, and the employment rate for that group is far lower than for men. This can make it hard to learn the language and it might lead to isolation.

A special focus on women

It takes between five and ten years for a newly arrived person to find a job in the Nordic countries. In Sweden it is very difficult – nowhere else in the EU does it take longer for newly arrived people to enter the labour market. Even though a strong labour market makes the situation a bit better, and two in three jobs go to people who are born abroad, women and people with no upper secondary education still fall outside. That is why Sweden will make labour market access, especially for women, a main priority during its Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2018. 

“The gap between Swedish born and foreign born people is still too wide – especially for women and people with no upper secondary education. The current situation calls for Nordic governments, authorities and the social partners to work hard to identify opportunities which will help more newly arrived people enter into the labour market,” said Annica Dahl, State Secretary to the Swedish Minister for Employment.

The conference was organised by the Nordic Welfare Centre together with Nordregio, on the Skeppsholmen island in Stockholm. The conference was fully booked long before the deadline, a sign of how important this issue is in the Nordic countries. The venue, a beautiful hall which used to belong to the Naval Academy situated on Skeppsholmen in the middle of Stockholm, was full to bursting by people from all over the Nordic region, ready to cooperate and exchange knowledge. 

A range of good examples were presented for how to shorten the journey between seeking asylum and finding a job. There was also focus on the challenges ahead. In the autumn of 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in the Nordic countries over a short period of time. This is being viewed as both a challenge and an opportunity. It also provided some perspective. A total of 60 million people were displaced in 2015. 0.4 percent of them came to the Nordic countries, while 86 percent of them live in developing countries.

“There are no signs that the number of refugees will decrease. The UNHCR estimates between 250 million and one billion people will be fleeing conflict and climate change by 2050. So we have a lot to win if we can get the refugees into the labour market,” said Kristin Marklund from the Nordic Welfare Centre. She is also the project leader for the Nordic Council of Ministers’ efforts to coordinate integration efforts across the Nordic region.

Making it quicker to find work

State Secretary Annica Dahl pointed out that Nordic leaders share the same challenges. There is a need to improve integration, and the process of finding work needs to become considerably quicker. The skills and experiences which foreigners bring must simply be put to better use.

One reason for the slow access to the Nordic labour markets is the low number of unskilled jobs available in all of the countries. Five percent of jobs in Sweden are unskilled, while 48 percent of the newly arrived only have primary education or less. Nordregio’s report ‘More refugees quicker into jobs’ shows the employment gap between native born and foreign born people prevails in terms of lower wages and inadequate matching of skills.

“There are many reasons for employment gaps and bad matching. Foreign exams and experience is valued less than Nordic equivalents, and different types of fast-tracking do not pick up people with lower qualifications,” explains Anna Karlsdottir from Nordregio, one of the report’s authors.

The report points to other explanations like discrimination, a lack of validation, difficulties in building on existing educations, a lack of social inclusion and a lack of networks. These problems are found in all of the Nordic countries.

So how do you speed up the process between arrival and finding a job? Nordregio’s work shows that it is important to map refugees’ skills. This can start as early as during the asylum process, and includes competences, language skills and professional experience. There is also a trend among Nordic countries to start the mapping of skill earlier than before. There is also an increase in the use of digital tools.

Validation is another tool, and in Sweden there are 14 so-called fast-tracks which make it possible to build on foreign educations and make them valid in Sweden. Norway has similar fast-track solutions. These have been developed in cooperation with the social partners, but work best for people with higher educations, and are less helpful for those with a low education.

In Sweden there has been a lot of criticism directed at SFI, Swedish for Immigrants. Many do not finish their course, and results vary a lot. According to Nordregio, it is far more efficient to combine language and work training.

“We also see that Nordic employers trust educations from their own countries, and that refugees who are educated in the Nordic countries are much more successful in finding jobs,” says Anna Karlsdottir.

It also seems crucial to create social networks in your new life if you want to find work, and civil society plays an important part in this. In Sweden, 70 percent of jobseekers found work through a network, while just 16 percent got a job through the public employment service.

“We also see how important it is to involve employers. Research shows that if you don’t, it becomes harder to prevent discrimination in the labour market,” says Anna Karlsdottir.

A solution to the labour shortage

Getting newly arrived people into work is a central issue for all countries. That can be seen not least in the way the media focusses on refugees; Nearly all the stories – and there are many – written about asylum seekers are about finding work. A job is seen as the gateway to society, but also an opportunity to contribute to the welfare system on which the Nordic model is built. 

If we manage to reduce the obstacles that prevent the newly arrived access to the labour market, we all stand to benefit. Many sectors suffer from labour shortages, and the need for labour is set to increase. In Denmark it is becoming increasingly common for many municipalities to look at newly arrived people as a resource. In rural areas it is considered a positive thing to welcome newly arrived families, and there are signs in towns with a labour shortage that businesses and municipalities consider refugees to be part of their future recruitment strategy, says Lars Larsen, head of the Danish analysis and consultancy agency LG Insight, a company that works with these issues with many municipalities.

“Integration politics is increasingly seen as development politics. In Vejle municipality in Jylland, for instance, integration issues permeate all political areas,” he says and adds:

“Perhaps we are seeing a trend where we in the future will be competing for refugees.”


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