Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i News i News 2024 i Immigrants struggle to find work in the Nordics despite labour shortages
Immigrants struggle to find work in the Nordics despite labour shortages

Immigrants struggle to find work in the Nordics despite labour shortages

| Text: Line Scheistrøen, photo: Snellman

Many immigrants in Nordic countries are left without jobs, despite labour shortages. The Finnish company Snellman has a lot of experience with hiring immigrants. “Immigrants are very keen on getting a job and they are keen workers. They are loyal employees,” says head of HR Ann-Marie Eklund.

“We have a lot of experience with hiring people with a foreign background. It has become a natural thing for us to do. It could be because the Jakobstad region is bilingual, with Finnish and Swedish, and that we at Snellman are used to speaking both languages,” head of HR Ann-Marie Eklund tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

Eklund was one of the participants during the webinar “Why should you (not) hire refugees and immigrants?”, hosted by the Nordic Welfare Centre. They say the issue creates a lot of interest. More than 300 people signed up to the webinar. 

Loyal employees

14 per cent of Snellman meat processing plant’s nearly 1,400 employees have a foreign background. They represent 40 nationalities.

“The immigrants are very keen on getting a job and they are keen workers. They are loyal employees. We have labour shortages here in Osterobothnia, so it is very important to attract foreign labour to our region. In the workplace, this creates an understanding of other cultures. Employees who speak different languages can come in handy when we communicate with customers,” says Eklund.


The webinar was chaired by Kaisa Kepsu, senior advisor at the Nordic Welfare Centre, here in conversation with Karin Heri, Anna Engedal Jacobsen and  Ahmed Abdirahman. Photo: Nordregio.

The important language

In order to work in this Finnish workplace, you normally need to speak three languages – Finnish, Swedish and English. This is required partly because the employer needs to be sure the workers can understand and talk about hygiene, health and safety.

When Ukrainian refugees knocked on the door to ask for jobs, it created a challenge for the company, explains the head of HR.

“We really wanted to help, but the language barriers were challenging. The Ukrainian refugees who came knew little English. In order to inform them about important health and hygiene issues, we got help from employees who could speak Russian and Ukrainian.”

Eklund says that the company demands that employees learn languages as they go along. They have also held in-house language courses.

What advice would you give to employers who wonder whether they should dare employ immigrants? 

“See each individual person when recruiting and during the job interview. Focus on the person’s experiences and what they can bring to the company, regardless of their background.  

“Make sure people have the correct work permits and passports. Create clear induction models and use guides to make the introduction to work tasks easier. Create a socially inclusive work environment, for instance by organising social events. In a workplace, it is important to also remember that everyone needs to be seen and heard,” says Eklund.  

With employer glasses on

During the webinar, Nordregion researchers Rebecca Cavicchia and Anna Berlina presented findings from the aptly titled report “Employers’ perspectives on hiring immigrants - Experiences from Nordic countries.

The researchers have been looking at employers’ attitudes to hiring immigrants. They have gathered and studied existing research and also interviewed eight employers in Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. 

Rebecca Cavicchia (t.v) og Anna Berlina

Nordregio researchers Rebecca Cavicchia (left) and Anna Berlina hope the report can inspire employers to think innovatively when recruiting workers. Photo: Nordregio. 

The aim was to discover which challenges employers face and to find solutions and measures that can lead to more inclusive recruitment. They also highlighted employers’ role and responsibility for improving the integration of immigrants in the labour market.  

Many without a job

The Nordic region has seen a considerable rise in immigration, especially since the 2015 refugee crisis and in the wake of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Today, around 3.5 million immigrants live in the Nordics.

But even though there are high levels of labour shortages, many immigrants remain outside of the labour market. Several studies show that it is hard for refugees and immigrants to find jobs, especially for women, people with low or no education or non-EU immigrants.    

Helping employers

Jobbentrén is a Swedish company that helps businesses employ more people with a foreign background. Mark Ahlenius, Jobbentrén’s founder, took part in the webinar. He encouraged employers to dare to think innovatively. 

“Nearly one-third of Sweden’s labour market is made up of people with immigrant backgrounds. Companies who see them are tomorrow’s winners,” said Ahlenius.

He highlighted several advantages to hiring immigrants. 

“In our experience, if unemployed immigrants get jobs, they often stay for longer in that position and remain loyal to the company,” he said.

“Just try”

The employers interviewed by the Nordregio researchers for the report also underline that they mostly have positive experiences with hiring immigrants. They encourage other employers to “just try it” and to “not be afraid” of failure.

“The key is to dare to give it a try. Several companies say the recruitment and integration of immigrants to the workplace has been easier than they expected,” says researcher Anna Berlina at Nordregio. 

Encourages some creativity

The employers say there are both benefits and challenges to hiring immigrants.

“The benefits are diversity, new knowledge, improved customer service and increased tolerance among employees. And the company also gains access to a larger labour pool,” says Rebecca Cavicchia, a Nordregio researcher. 

Unemployment graph

Many immigrants lack jobs. Unemployment is highest among women. (Source: Nordregio/Eurostat)

Employers say it can be difficult to obtain work permits for non-EU immigrants and that they experience challenges with the language and cultural differences.

The researchers list some strategies for addressing the challenges: 

  • Language training
  • Promoting cultural awareness and sensibilities
  • Positive attitude to diversity, including in hiring strategies
  • Promoting an understanding of rules, values and norms in Nordic workplaces 
  • Adjusting expectations to language skills
  • Creative approaches to minimise the challenges

Too stringent language requirements?

Language is a common challenge. Many immigrants fail in interviews because their language skills are not good enough. 

Anna Engedal Jacobsen works with international recruitment and integration in Denmark. She encourages employers to not allow language barriers stop them from hiring immigrants. Engedal Jacobsen underlines that the workplace is one of the best venues in which to learn a language. 

“There is a big difference between learning a language in a school setting and learning a language while working,” she told the webinar.

Karin Heri, Country Director at Tent Partnership for Refugees in Sweden, has seen how employers tend to set language requirements too high during the hiring process.

“Job interviews usually involve a more advanced Swedish than what the job requires. We can help businesses realise that a worker can learn the language while working. You can make a plan for which language levels are acceptable at the start of a contract and then create goals for further language training. You could for instance identify a goal for which language level the employee should reach within one year,” said Heri.

Nordregio report on immigrants and the labour market

Nordregio report

The Nordregio report “Employers' perspectives on hiring immigrants.”

By Anna Berlina, Rebecca Cavicchia. 


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment