Startpage for Swedish National Agency for Higher Education

Please note! The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education was closed down on 31 December 2012. Instead two new agencies have been established: the Swedish Council for Higher Education and the Swedish Higher Education Authority. This website will continue to operate as the new agencies will have links to information it contains.  

2004:37 R

Finally the right place for me. About the path taken by immigrant university graduates towards qualified jobs: obstacles and openings

There are currently approximately 30 000 unemployed or “misemployed” immigrant university graduates who have been in Sweden from five and up to such a long time as thirty five years. The difficulties encountered by immigrants on the Swedish labour market cannot be explained by level of education, but in spite of this foreign-born graduates have jobs with lower qualification requirements and in other branches compared to indigenous Swedes. (The concept “immigrant university graduates” should be regarded as synonymous with highly educated of foreign birth or immigrants.)

The report Finally the right place for me is based on earlier studies of immigrant university graduates and on a number of complementary interviews aimed at trying to establish factors that contribute either to successes or difficulties vis-à-vis the Swedish labour market. It is structured on statements and comments from informants able to present a more manifold picture of the problems involved from their own biographical experiences or professional views. The report records and discusses interviews with three employment office staff at a special employment office for immigrant university graduates and a representative for an association that works on behalf of their interests.

The actual framework of the report, however, is taken from sixteen life histories related by immigrant university graduates who have in fact “succeeded”. The idea behind this choice was not only to try to find out how they succeeded, but also to have a better delineated description of the way there and the pitfalls met by the wayside. The life-history informants, are from Iran, Bosnia and Iraq. They have all come to Sweden as adults (of varying ages of course) with at least an upper secondary education in their baggage. Thirteen of them had, moreover, taken foreign university degrees and university college diplomas. The group was, professionally, of a mixed bunch; a dentist, an engineer, teachers, economists, history and social science researchers.

The migration process

Results show that, already during their initial period in Sweden, the immigrant university graduates ran into obstacles that risked delaying their Swedish careers. Such obstacles were e.g. the following: the lengthy and uncertain time waiting for residence permits. After eventually being given a residence permit, they were often allocated to a housing area without any real career prospects for the future. The integration efforts of municipalities very often fell short of expectations, not least the Swedish as a second language campaign which, with its shortcomings, can make language learning more difficult and thereby also the opportunities for getting work or further studies. They have also had problems getting their academic qualifications properly evaluated. Also, following advice and guidance both from the authorities and their own indigenous countrymen, immigrant university graduates have been referred to jobs or courses far below their qualification level.

The difficulties encountered by immigrant university graduates can be said to be of two different kinds: on the one hand, practical obstacles that can be related to a situation where the individual must adapt himself/herself to a new, unfamiliar environment, and on the other mental barriers arising from the need to adapt. Many of the informants, more or less prepared have been forced to leave an ordered middle class way of life in order to flee to a country of which they have limited knowledge.

Often the stay in Sweden is initially regarded as a “temporary interval” while awaiting the possibility of returning - an attitude that in its turn can influence the will and motivation to invest in a career in Sweden. A recurrent theme in the interview material is that the informants, prior to their learning a language, felt that they were treated as – and sometimes themselves felt like – children. Immigrant university graduates run the risk of being confronted with an “inferior picture” of themselves since, in the new situation they are regarded only as immigrants, which would have an erasable effect on characteristics and features that were important and interesting to other people in their homeland.

The paths to quality enhancement activities

The relatively successful immigrant university graduates on which the interview studies are based eventually succeeded in circumventing the initial obstacles through self-tuition or by reading double as much in order to learn Swedish faster, in spite of imperfect teaching and mixed feelings in having to sit in a classroom again. They themselves have taken the initiative to have their situation changed, by seeking a higher education or by becoming more adept at their job.

Nevertheless none of the informants in the interview survey went directly from completed language studies to a job commensurate with their educational background or previous vocational identity, something that tells us that it is more than language that hinders their access to qualified positions. The informants have availed themselves of various ways towards regaining a qualified profession where their educational background can be put to use. The interview material emphasises three main alternatives: 1) to work oneself up from more unqualified tasks, 2) by supplementing earlier studies with studies in Swedish at university college or university level, or 3) by retraining. These ways, or a combination of them that would often seem to be required, can be said to reflect the necessity for Swedish qualifications (vocational and professional), Swedish references and contacts for successful entry into the Swedish labour market.

Short cuts or the ones that are the longest way round
The report also throws light on other possibilities of making contacts and obtaining Swedish references. Several of the informants have made their way into the labour market via jobs where their foreign background turned out to be invaluable. For example, working for the Immigration Board, the “immigrants radio” or as interpreters. For some the “immigrant job” has meant a longed-for chance of getting a job that is in keeping with their educational background. It shows that this can function as a means of getting them into the labour market and then up its career ladder. Unhappily it can also go the other way.

The same can also be said to apply to job experience. Research shows that job experience is seldom related to immigrants’ educational background and profession in the homeland. The informants who have gained most from their job experience are those who got it along with an education aimed at providing them with a branch language and insight into Swedish labour conditions, and who then succeeded in getting a trainee post within their own educational field. Previous studies have also showed that combined trainee and study programmes give positive results, since the participants get an opportunity of becoming familiar with a Swedish place of work, and the employer gets a chance to see what immigrant university graduates can contribute.

The foreign background in the foreground

A difficulty evinced by most informants is that their foreign background tends to end up in the foreground and overshadow the person in question, i.e. his or her qualities, interests, skills and merits. Another problem is that the native Swedes came to regard them as immigrants rather than individuals, or solely as female-bullying “men from the Middle East” or as uncivilised Balkans, as their (original-) countrymen would confirm, unless their new countrymen get there before them. According to the report, the core problem would seem to evolve around mutual suspicion.

One interesting aspect is that, when persuaded to lay aside their suspicions, several of the informants were able to re-evaluate their earlier experiences. They can now see today that, in some cases, they themselves contributed to their and their countrymen’s alienation by their own conduct. In other cases, however, the distrust was more of a one-way character and in no way could be explained by something partly self-inflicted. The employment office staff that were interviewed unanimously confirmed that discrimination exists and that “ employers would rather be safe than sorry”.

The question is how these mechanisms work. The stories of the informants show, among other things, the existence of a collective assessment, i.e., the competency of an individual is based on the views or experiences of the employers gained through meeting other immigrants. In a way the failure of an immigrant can result in several other immigrants not being given the chance to show what they go for. The reverse also appears to exist. The interview material shows that the immigrant university graduates who succeed can become good workplace ambassadors for their respective ethnic groups.

One problem with employment procedures, pointed out in previous studies, is that the employers are reluctant to put their thoughts into words, for example, this thing about work ethic and whether the applicant is aware of the cultural codes that apply in Sweden. Several of the informants’ stories show that applicants tended to shy away from these sensitive matters by spontaneously and steadfastly maintaining during the employment interview that they disassociate themselves from the racial prejudices held by their own countrymen. Even later on, when well and securely ensconced in the job, several have felt the need to overcompensate by showing themselves to be extra competent and skilful.

Factors behind professional success

The employment office staff who were interviewed maintain that the immigrant university graduates achieved professional success through their own personal self-confidence, their motivation, high objectives, realistic expectations and an understanding of and insight into the demands of the labour market. Those followed-up in the report and regarded as professionally successful immigrant university graduates said that, although they had expected some opposition, they were aware of the fact that their Swedish career would not be as “straight as a die” affair. This would seem to set them apart from a number of unemployed immigrant university graduates interviewed in previous surveys. Contrary to how Swedish university graduates regard their personal status, immigrants with homeland university degrees regarded themselves as part of an exclusive elite in their home countries, and consequently they felt it almost unthinkable that highly educated people like them could go without work or be compelled to enter retraining. A far too strong emphasis on the obstacles faced can, nevertheless, end up as something of a self-sacrificing prophecy. From that point of view, it would be counter-productive if the debate were to focus so much on unsuccessful immigrant university graduates.

The success factors the informants themselves emphasise can be related to their own attitude, the guidance and assistance they have been given and to their social attributes. All of them maintain the importance of personal involvement and of not being afraid to seize opportunities whey they arise. While some informants were critical of the guidance given them by the Swedish authorities, others underlined just this as a decisive factor in their success. They emphasise they were given a great deal of assistance from inter alia the employment office, and they regarded adapted courses and the opportunity for practical training as a major part of the explanation why they have succeeded. All in all it would appear that the attitudes of individuals and their efforts were of decisive importance – both in the positive and negative meaning of the term.

Both the informants who related their life histories and the employment office staff maintain that language skills and adaptability are required for success on the Swedish labour market. At the same time all the informants pointed out that success cannot be said to depend only on individual qualities, also required were decisive factors such as contacts and labour market demands if the individual is above all to be given the opportunity of showing his/her competency. For certain professional groups, for example, lawyers with foreign degrees, the Swedish labour market is always relatively narrow field since their higher education qualifications are difficult to translate to Swedish requirements.

At the same time earlier research also shows that the evaluation of an immigrant’s professional competency and proficiency in the Swedish language are significantly governed by the situation on the labour market. Consequently immigrant university graduates belonging to one and the same professional group seeking employment on the labour market at different times can be confronted with completely different requirements.

More questions than answers

The views held by the informants concerning their own success are often contradictory. On the one hand it may be a case of adaptation, on the other that of demanding one’s rights. Perhaps the successes should be interpreted as a happy balance somewhere in between? Several of the informants described how they were induced in different ways “to open themselves to Sweden”, but how they also tried to show they were better than the prejudices by displaying a desirable “Swedishness” for the labour market. Even if this can be construed as success strategies that functioned for the individual, this nevertheless does not mean that the strategies ought to be described as “successful” from a societal integration point of view. Perhaps it is so that the labour market passengers require an excess normality or “cultural hypercorrection” that does not allow for any major deviations from the Swedish norm?