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 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.
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.
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.
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.