Long road into work for highly educated refugees

17 January 2023

Man sitting by his laptop with his head in his palms.

For refugees the ability to work in areas for which you are trained often requires what the researchers refers to as a ‘rewinding’ of the career.

Highly educated refugees who come to Sweden have to wait a long time before they are able enter the labour market, as shown by research at Uppsala University examining the situation among professions such as pharmacists and veterinary assistants.

Micheline van Riemsdijk, Associate Professor of
Human Geography. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“There are fast-tracks and many other effective initiatives, such as job-specific language courses and internships, but the process of returning to a profession in the new home country is still very long for various reasons,” explains Micheline van Riemsdijk, Associate Professor of Human Geography at Uppsala University.

A major reason is language requirements. In order to enter the labour market, learning Swedish is not sufficient as knowledge of English is also required.

“If you want to attend a supplementary programme at the university, for example to work as a pharmacist in Sweden, you must be able to read in both Swedish and English. Most of our informants understand English, but they must be able to demonstrate that they are proficient in the language.”

Asylum process takes time

Another reason for the long wait for a job is the asylum process, of course. For many, this is a period of uncertainty and idleness, waiting for a decision whether they can stay in Sweden.

“Refugees have a legal right to work, but many employers hesitate to do the bureaucratic work required to hire someone who may not be able to stay. If they obtain a residence permit, there will be another wait to get into a language programme or get an internship. It becomes a vicious circle of demotivation, when people want to work but the system works against them,” notes van Riemsdijk.

As part of the project, she and doctoral student Ioanna Blasko interviewed over a hundred people. In addition to highly educated refugees, they also spoke to various actors involved in labour market interventions. They closely followed people who completed their education to qualify as pharmacists or veterinary assistants in Sweden.

Rewinding a career

The researchers discovered that there is a ‘gap’ for many on the road to work after the introduction programme in Swedish. The ability to work in areas for which you are trained often requires what Micheline refers to as a ‘rewinding’ of the career.

“It's not merely an interruption to the career but actually a rewinding, where you have to retake many courses and prove your skills again.”

Pharmacists who come to Sweden and do language practice can stock shelves and clean but are not allowed to dispense medication because they do not have the authorisation yet. Photo: Getty Images

In the pharmacist study, she met people who had worked as pharmacists for many years before coming to Sweden. Some even owned their own pharmacies.

“Then they come to Sweden and do language practice. They stock shelves and clean but are not allowed to dispense medication because they do not have the authorisation yet. This is a kind of rewinding where they have to redo a lot of things and of course also learn about the way their profession works in Sweden.”

Affects motivation

Interaction with patients and communication are examples of key skills that differ greatly between countries. The legal framework is also crucial – for example, whether or not pharmacists are allowed to prescribe medicines.

“The question is what this requires, not only in terms of time but also in terms of people's motivation and professional identity,” adds van Riemsdijk.

In conjunction with the study, she and Ioanna Blasko have developed recommendations for how the long road to obtaining work can be shortened. She thinks one of the most important recommendations is to reduce the ‘gaps’.

“There are many good initiatives, but it still takes a very long time and people become demotivated. Something must be done. It's not just about speeding up the integration process, but also about informing people about the necessary steps for authorisation and keeping them motivated along the way.”

Short funding cycles

She highlights some positive examples of cooperation between different operators. For example, in Project Senna the trade union, the employer organisation and the industry organisation have come together to provide information about what is required to become a registered pharmacist in Sweden. The project is funded by the Swedish Public Employment Service.

“The disadvantage is that it entails short-term funding, which needs to be applied for again each year. We often see short funding cycles and a lack of coherence between different initiatives. There are many actors doing good things, but more cooperation is required.”

If refugees could find specialised language courses even in smaller towns, they would be able to start earlier and shorten the road to finding work. Photo: Getty Images

Another recommendation is to provide more vocational language courses, for example Swedish for the medical profession and architects, even in smaller towns.

“Currently, you have more opportunities if you live in a big city, especially in the beginning. If you could find these specialised language courses even in smaller towns, you would be able to start earlier and shorten the road to finding work.”

Wants to reach out to non-academics

The research project will end in June, and a conference was already held in autumn 2022 at which the main results were presented. The conference was also aimed at non-academics, who work in fields such as language education or labour market initiatives across counties and municipalities.

Van Riemsdijk would like to continue working on these issues and is involved in a mentoring project at Uppsala University in order to utilise her research. She has a range of ideas for collaborative projects going forward.

“I want to do something to improve this situation. If I receive funding, I can team up with an employer and develop new solutions together, for example.”

Social integration of highly qualified refugees in Sweden

The project is funded by Forte (Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare) and has provided an insight into refugees' paths into the labour market and the obstacles they face on the way. ‘Highly qualified refugees’ refers to people with refugee status who have completed university education. As a result of the research project, some recommendations are presented that can facilitate the path to work:

  • Validation of professional qualifications
  • Reliable information
  • Language training
  • Internships and subsidised employment
  • Equality, diversity and integration
  • Networking and mentoring
  • Collaboration between different integration bodies
  • Migration policy
  • Holistic perspective and long-term solutions

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Last modified: 2022-12-22