A man walks around a labrynth, while scenes from his search for work play out on the sides.

Sweden’s brain waste problem:  how the social welfare state locks migrant professionals out of the workforce

High language requirements, a one-size integration policy, and discrimination. Despite the need for labour, landing a job in Sweden has become a hurdle race for college-educated migrants, a new joint investigation with Lighthouse Reports shows. 

Since his family joined him last year, picking up the kids at school, just a few steps away from the house, has been part of Solomon*’s daily routine.

Back in Cameroon, his days were unpredictable. One day, he was covering a student strike, reporting on police blunders. Another day, he was meeting sources to unravel the mystery of UN shipping containers believed to be carrying weapons. In between, the only routines were daily news broadcasts or late nights in the office preparing the editorial section of his own daily newspaper. 

But that was years ago, and all vestiges of his adrenaline-filled life as a beat reporter are packed away in a cardboard box. 

In their living room scattered with children’s toys, Solomon sifts through the box, carefully removing old newspapers and folders containing certificates and awards. Sometimes his gaze lingers over a clipping as he struggles to dredge up the memory of an important scoop. A photo in an article catches his attention. “This guy is still in prison,” he explains, relating an article he wrote twelve years ago on the political situation in Cameroon. 

Some coverage is about him, not by him, as press freedom deteriorated and the journalists, and the attacks against them, became the story. An article from February 2008 documents the police bursting into his radio station to interrupt a bilingual newsflash, which he was about to present, and shutting down the radio.

“Seeing all this reminds me how my life has changed,” he says, leafing through the newspaper pages, which have become grey-tinged over the years.

Solomon now lives in Gothenburg, in the urban district of Biskopsgården, which has been known for its immigrant and multiethnic population since the 1960s. 

In recent years, Sweden has gone from being an ethnically homogenous country to a migration destination. The country registered more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015 amid the war in Syria, many of whom came from Iraq and Afghanistan or Eritrea and Somalia. 

This is the most in the country’s long history of receiving refugees from war countries before it changed its migration policy. 

Among the migrants, some came to Sweden with college degrees in their baggage, like Solomon. 

However, despite the increasing need for manpower, college-educated migrants struggle to find their place in the job market, and some are simply left out. 

According to an investigation based on data obtained and analyzed by Lighthouse Reports, an investigative newsroom, in collaboration with Unbias the News, Financial Times, and El Pais, the gap in unemployment between college-educated migrants and natives in Sweden is the second-highest in Europe.

A chart shows the opportunity gap for for skilled migrants in Sweden, using human figures to show how college-educated migrants compare to natives.

In Sweden, more than elsewhere in Europe, college-educated migrants from the Global South are more likely to be unemployed than their fellows from the Global North. A pattern Solomon fits into.

The investigation shows that even when they have jobs, college-educated migrants in Sweden are either more likely to be underemployed (working part-time but being available to work additional hours) or overqualified for those jobs as compared to natives.

This investigation seeks to explain the apparent disconnect between, on the one hand, Sweden’s famed social welfare programs, its open-armed acceptance of immigrants and programs to support them and, on the other hand, its all-around failure to get educated migrants into the workforce at all, let alone at the professional level they are qualified for. 

One-size integration programs

Job market specialists say there is a huge and untapped resource among migrants, a positive take on the grim reality of high rates of migrant unemployment. 

“We have huge demographic challenges in this country. Skills supply is also a huge issue, and we must make the two equations go together,” said Marcus Löwing, labor market analyst at the Swedish Public Employment Agency .  

In Sweden, there is no shortage of public and private programs aimed at helping migrants with college degrees speed up their labor market integration.

However, some of these efforts are “self-deception,” according to Farbod Rezania. He worked for many years on labour market issues, migration, and integration at Svenskt näringsliv, the Swedish employer’s organisation.

“Some people come with injuries and need other types of help, but others come with skills and want to work directly. They should be able to start working and not be forced into endless training programs,” said Farbod.

“The system does not take into account that migrants have different backgrounds. Instead, everyone is forced to go the same way.”

The fact that the migrant reception system does not take into account their different experiences, skills, and education prevents some newcomers from realizing their dreams, which in most cases is to land a job, any job, quickly.

Meiyuan Dahl is one of the migrants who came to Sweden to study. After she got her master’s degree in textile management, she applied for jobs, but she has never been called for an interview. Meiyuan then participated in a mentoring program that helps migrants enter the labor market. 

“My mentor, who worked in the fashion industry, thought that I lacked work experience and should apply for a job in the field where I have experience,” she said. But still, applications for a job in graphic design went nowhere.

Passionate about art, she loves to express herself with watercolour pencils or design software. In her hometown, Shanghai, Meiyuan designed logos, flyers and newsletters for companies, event posters for hotels like Vargas Hospitality, and set up layouts for magazines like Hola China. “I guess no one cared about my previous experience in China,” she says, disappointed.

Her story is typical of the barriers many college-educated migrants run into. Migrants’ education and work experience are often underestimated and not always recognized in the job market, many experts say in interviews.

They pointed out mistrust and prejudice about the education that migrants received from their home countries as part of the problem.

Solomon struggled to highlight the significance of the Journalism of Courage award he won in May 2016 or, more recently, in 2020, when he received his scholarship award letter from the Swedish Institute. They ended up as just lines on his CV. 

According to Catharina Bildt Grape, expert on migration, integration, and labor market issues, Sweden has not been as successful as other countries at capitalizing on immigration. “The fact that you have never worked in Sweden does not mean that you cannot work in Sweden,” she said. “Many countries have taken advantage of immigration. They have been good at getting migrants into the job market. In Sweden, we have not been that good.”

The European Context

The issue of college-educated migrants struggling in the job market is widespread in Europe. Overall, on the continent, they are nearly twice as likely as college-educated natives to be unemployed, as Lighthouse Reports found, analysing data obtained from Eurostat

Nearly half of college-educated migrants who have landed a job are overqualified for those jobs, while the overqualification problem affects only a third of college-educated natives. 

However, while Lighthouse Reports’ investigation points to a loss in GPD due to brain waste, it also highlights that countries like Portugal have successfully harnessed immigrant talent to boost the economy. The country’s policy of enrolling migrants in university programs and then integrating them into the professional class in Portugal has been a success. 

In Sweden many college-educated migrants are competing with non-college-educated migrants for the same kind of jobs, such as grocery store workers, home care workers, or cooks and kitchen staff, with high unemployment rates for both groups.

College-educated migrants compete with non-college-educated migrants for menial labour jobs - if they get a job at all

When Pilalslak, 44, left Thailand for Sweden in 2011, she was confident and full of dreams. With a smile that rarely leaves her face, she recounts her first moments in Sweden.

“Dreams and plans are the most human things when you just move to a new country to start a new life,” Pilalslak said, recalling her first moment in Sweden. She was then newly graduated and thought she could work in public relations, communication, and marketing. 

But Pilalslak did not get hired after an internship in a bank after a fast-track program, the Short Route, is designed to facilitate direct entry of migrants into their field of work. 

Years later, she gave up her first dream and is now pursuing a new career in the restaurant field. 

Before she got a permanent job as a cook, Pilalslak worked many years in fixed-term menial jobs as a server and kitchen staff. 

In part, Sweden’s robust economy works against migrants. Sweden has a high minimum wage, a relatively small pool of low-skilled jobs, and stringent employment protection for permanent work. This means that there are few low-skilled jobs available for migrants, college-educated or not, that they can immediately begin upon arrival. 

Like Pilalslak, most migrants who are overqualified for their jobs find employment in service and are most likely to work as cooks, food preparation assistants, or hotel and office cleaners and helpers, the Lighthouse investigation reveals. 

In general, college-educated migrants in Sweden commonly work as personal care workers in health services, as child care workers, teachers’ aides, cleaners, shop salespersons, food preparation assistants and heavy truck and bus drivers.

“My first job was in a salad bar, and it was very low-paid. But I could not find anything else since I did not speak Swedish then,” Pilalslak recalled, adding that she had to work during the days and study Swedish in the evenings.

Swedish language skills are key to landing a job

All the migrants we spoke with confirmed the data findings: the Swedish language is essential for migrants to land the right job in their field. According to Pieter Bevelander, a Professor and head of the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity, and Welfare, “almost all jobs require some knowledge of Swedish, and this has increased due to the structural transformation of [the] labour market with more services and less assembly line work.” 

Most efforts to help migrants get jobs involve learning the language. As part of the introduction programme for newcomers in Sweden, migrants are generously offered free Swedish language courses. 

The findings of the Lighthouse investigation highlight the advantage that the language can offer college-educated migrants in the job market. The gap in unemployment between those who are proficient in the native language and those who are not is the highest in Europe. 

Being proficient in Swedish makes a difference in the kind of jobs college migrants get. The overqualification gap between college-educated migrants who are and are not proficient in Swedish is almost 18%.

Among the many migrants enrolled in Swedish classes around the country, there is a strong belief that language will unlock the job market. 

“My problem is the language,” Solomon says. He will resume his part-time online studies in a few days, which means a new routine for him and shorter days.

After four years, he knows how the Swedish job market works and wants to focus on learning the language. “I’ve been to interviews for jobs that do not require Swedish. But at the end of the interviews, they asked me if I speak Swedish,” he adds, rather unsurprised.

Language- a proxy for ethnicity?

According to Adnan Habibija, an expert in labour market and integration policy at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, there has been a tendency in Sweden to set high language requirements, in general, in most workplaces. “I think that’s a bit exaggerated, a kind of inflation. It may be a way for some employers to simply reject certain candidates,” he said. 

Mark Ahlenius, a co-founder of a recruitment agency focusing on diversity and inclusion, explained that the language requirement also reflects expectations related to the Swedish workplace culture. “No matter your role, you should contribute to the team, talk to your colleagues, participate in the fika (the traditional coffee break in Sweden), and understand the whole. This is why we have such high language requirements compared to other countries,” he said. 

As part of his job of placing migrant talents, he meets employers daily and knows about their expectations. “When we talk to employers, it’s never about which country a job applicant comes from or which ethnic background he has, but rather: Do they speak Swedish? Have they worked in Sweden? Do they know how the Swedish system works?”

Meiyuan had a career in graphic design in China. After her studies, she decided to stay in Sweden and has learned the language but has not yet landed a job. “I knew that language was important already when I came here, so I started learning Swedish while studying for my master’s degree,” she said. When she couldn’t find a job by herself, Meiyuan turned to the Swedish Public Employment Agency and was advised to enroll in Higher vocational education for a two-year programme taught in Swedish. Even if she did not need the vocational training, it could get her the Swedish skills to get a foot in the door with employers.

“Now I am here with my degrees, my work experience from China—which does not count—and only internships in Sweden. Some people say I should study something else to increase my chances. What should I do?”

Meiyuan, Solomon and other migrants with degrees in art and humanities fit in the pattern of the Lighthouse findings. They constitute the third-greatest share of migrants working jobs for which they are overqualified. 

Finding a job for migrants with a college degree in humanities is even harder in a competitive job market that leaves room for discrimination. 

A range of sources and experts interviewed point out ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labour market. “Discrimination in the labour market is very widespread. It is more prevalent than people think in Sweden. We like to think that the Swedish labour market is meritocratic and that merit rules, but the fact is that we are far from such a society,” said Adnan Habibija, expert in labour market and integration policy for the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

Back to square one

As college-educated migrants enter a labour market where their degrees are not recognised, and their skills are considered up to Swedish standard, there are other ways to improve the odds: arrive with a degree in a regulated profession or start over and get a degree in Sweden. 

Labour market experts said Sweden has a knowledge-intensive labour market that requires education for almost every type of job. Preferably an education in Sweden.

Dalia Lozano, 36, is originally from Mexico. She talks with passion and confidence about her career in Mexico. But her disappointment is in evidence when she talks about her experience in Sweden.

“I moved to Sweden with more than ten years of experience. Should I just throw all this in the trash because I am in a new country?”

Desperate to find a job that matched her qualifications, she once sought a job as a child carer. At the interview, the employer told her that her degree was not from Sweden and that, therefore, she would get paid less than she could have expected. “I felt that they belittled me,” she said.

Some signs of hope in regulated professions

The first time Dalia discovered Sweden was when she was preparing her master’s thesis about a teaching method developed by a Swedish school. The thesis earned her a Master’s degree in education from Tecmilenio University in Monterrey. After graduation, she worked for a company specializing in education technology, designing courses for the company’s clients. In Sweden, Dalia never thought finding a job would be that difficult, and that she would have so much time on her hands. 

“I have got a lot of time in the mornings,” she quickly points out, stepping into a café on a Wednesday morning.

“It is very hard and depressing when you apply for jobs and never get a call for an interview. I got interviews a few times in my five years, and that is all! The rest has been these automatic replies: “We have decided to go forward with other candidates.” Replies that sound familiar to her, she says, and always make her wonder about her integration. “When will I get the chance to learn about and be part of the society?” 

Dalia holds a degree in education, which in Sweden is a regulated profession. There are many unfilled jobs in education: more than 55% of people with an education degree work in a shortage profession. Despite this shortage, many immigrants with education degrees don’t end up finding jobs in the field: immigrants with education degrees are more than 4.5% more likely to be unemployed than natives and more than 12.5% more likely to work in jobs for which they are overqualified.

Yet even when migrants secure jobs in teaching, underemployment remains high, with a rate more than double that of natives.

A few months ago, Dalia finally got an email from Mexico with a message that sounded different. She moved halfway across the world, but where she got a job is in her home country.

In late February, when she read the email informing her that she got the job she applied for, Dalia felt relief. She was not expecting things to go so fast. “From the first interview—which was one week after she applied for the job—to being hired, the whole process took 10 days,” she stressed.

In late February, when she read the email informing her that she got the job she applied for, Dalia felt relief. She was not expecting things to go so fast. “From the first interview—which was one week after she applied for the job—to being hired, the whole process took 10 days,” she stressed. 

The opportunity came when Dalia started worrying about the gap in her CV  after years without active experience in the labour market. 

“I thought, well, my native language is Spanish. I would look for a job in Mexico before my competencies became obsolete. And it worked. After a month of trying, I found a company interested in me.”

“They value my skills, and I feel better now that I can resume activity in my field and use my experience,” she said.

What no one teaches you

Things were promising when Dalia moved to Sweden in 2019 to live with her Swedish husband. She first got a contract in an international school as a substitute teacher in Spanish. 

“At that time, I did not think it would be that hard,” she said “And I did not focus on getting the license in teaching because teaching was not what I wanted at first.”

With a master’s degree from Mexico and no teaching license in Sweden, Dalia’s only options were to take low-paid jobs for which she is overqualified, start her own company or take a remote job.

“Many things make me think that there is no trust in my competencies in a field I have a degree and experience to work in. That pushed me to find my own way.”

“And now I feel left outside the society,” Dalia said.

For her, a normal working day starts when most people around her get off work. Since she has a remote position and is not working full-time, she is still hoping she can get a job in Sweden and learn about the culture in an office in Sweden.“I want to work more and am still open to opportunities in Sweden,” she said.

For her, working in a company or a school in Sweden is more than just having an income. Above all, it’s the integration she dreamed of when she arrived in the country. “The traditions, the culture, the Swedish way of living… no one teaches you those things, and there are not many ways to learn if you are jobless,” she said.

Three years after moving to Sweden, when she asked for help at the Swedish public employment agency, they recommended she do a fast-track programme for teachers, which would take her at least two years to become a licensed teacher. 

Experts have criticised the fact that migrants are not always well-informed and are not given adequate help at the right time.

“The Swedish public employment agency works too badly. What happens during newcomers’ first moments is important in their integration process. You should get early contact with the labour market and early support to learn the language. That will increase your motivation to keep trying,” Catharina Bildt Grape said. 

With high shortages, healthcare is usually presented as a field that succeeds in speeding up migrants’ labour market integration.

John Mendoza worked as a nurse in the Philippines. Four years after moving to Sweden, he completed the language and training programs and got a job as a dialysis nurse. 

“I consider myself lucky, he said.

John benefited from a fast-track programme that validated his education and skills from the Philippines faster. “If it hadn’t been for the special programme, passing the theoretical and practical nursing tests would have taken me maybe two years instead, as per the experience of other foreign-educated nurses,” he says. 

Many college-educated migrants in Sweden have not been as lucky as John. 

Starting over: a slow but usually effective route

It takes newcomers a long time to land a job in Sweden, according to statistics and experts. 

The investigation found that migrants who have been in the country for more than ten years have better chances of getting a job than those who have been there for less than ten years.

This often involves starting over and retraining to work in other fields. “When you come to Sweden, you end up in a no-man’s land for five or six years. After that, it becomes difficult to compete with new talents in your field,” Farbod says.

In some cases, the solution is getting a Swedish degree, which seems to make a big difference between migrants. According to Lighthouse Reports’ findings, Sweden has the biggest gap in unemployment between migrants who earned their degree in their host country and those who earned it in Sweden. 

In addition to retraining, migrants in the Swedish labour market often lack professional networks, which are important and require time to build. 

Networks are commonly considered as the other key to getting a job in Sweden, alongside language skills. “We have a network-driven labour market that requires you know people. And that’s exactly what you lack when you come to Sweden,” said Hanna Söderlund, communication officer for the non-profit organisation Yrkes dörren.

As a job market analyst, Marcus said that professional networks play a major role for foreign-born people in the labour market. “People who have been able to establish themselves in the Swedish labour market over time through internship and temporary jobs probably have a much better outcome in their job search in the future,” he explained. 

After a long search for a permanent and stable job, Pilalslak, who now works as a cook, realized she could rely on her passion for cooking. Her first job as a substitute cook was very important to her, she said. “Once you get the first opportunity, then many other opportunities come to you.” 

Solomon didn’t get a job after work placements. As a registered job seeker with the Swedish public employment agency, he has to apply for at least six jobs per month. “At one point, I was applying for at least twenty jobs a month,” he said. But the result was the same and unsuccessful.  

He is convinced that the solution is to retrain, he said, with a new shortage field in mind. But first, he has to overcome the major language barrier, which brings him back to square one. 

“There is nothing wrong with the language learning programme itself, but it comes at the wrong time. You can’t afford to lose the first few years when you come to Sweden,” Farbod said. 

The fact that language development is not considered as part of job learning and skills development is a major obstacle, some experts pointed out in interviews. “People are bad at finding ways to train someone who does not speak direct and simple Swedish and is, therefore, not easy to communicate with. It’s another leadership challenge people are not used to, experienced, or brave enough to try,” Mark Ahlenius explained.

Ready for something new

As a journalist in Cameroon, Solomon faced danger on a regular basis and considers himself quite resilient.  At 45, he says he is ready for a new career since he realised he cannot work in Sweden with writing or translation. For the time being, his priority is to put food on the table.

Some of the old newspapers piled up on the coffee table include bylines from South Africa and Guinea, countries where he fled for his safety. In those countries, Solomon always found ways to continue to practice journalism.

On a summer day in mid-September 2020, when he landed in Sweden with a scholarship to study investigative journalism, Solomon was already planning for the future. And he soon saw challenges ahead. “When I decided to stay here, I did realise that things were going to be difficult.”

“I did not want my wife to make the same mistake. She learned from my experience, and she started with Swedish as soon as she arrived,” Solomon said.

“It’s not easy not to be able to continue a job that is, in fact, a passion,” he says, eyes on the archives, which he puts back in the box with the same care.” While recalling his time working as a journalist in Cameroon, former colleagues’ names pop up.“We worked together for years at the radio. Now he works for Radio Canada,” Solomon said, about a former colleague. 

For now, when he is not studying Swedish or caring for his family, Solomon works delivering newspapers every night, instead of writing the headline stories.

*First names were sometimes used to protect sources’ chances for future employment.

About the author

Justin Yarga is a freelance journalist based in Gothenburg. He has experience working in Swedish newsrooms and freelancing for English-speaking media.  Before moving to Sweden, Justin was the editor of Burkina24 and a contributor for Le Monde Afrique in Burkina Faso. 

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