This Immigrant's Job Search in Sweden
Most of my blog posts about Sweden are filled with my affection for my new home. I'm glad to be here and I love this country. HOWEVER, the job search alone made me consider going back to the US. I became completely frustrated by what seemed like a total disregard of my professional experience. The worst thing is the way I'm received in social settings. It's completely misleading. Most Swedes are open and inviting to you when they find out you're American. They are interested in you and your American story. They want to know your journey and how you got here. It's great. My confidence was soaring as I filled out application after application.
I must admit that there is a cultural difference here when it comes to one's relationship to their occupation. I like to say that in Sweden you work to live, in America you live to work. We wear our occupations on our sleeve. One of the first questions we ask someone is what they do for a living. Then we take the answer and place that person in their rightful place in our imaginary hierarchy.
- Oh, she's a doctor! She's smart so don't say anything too dumb.
I bought into this. I played that game. What I do is important to me. I can't help it. I'm built like that. I don't judge people for what they do, but I feel like everyone is judging me for what I do. It may sound strange, but that's the way it is.
My main argument against coming here was
- I'm not trying to be a dishwasher.
Nothing against dishwashers. Wash with pride, bro. But I was alluding to the fact that many immigrants in America have loads of experience and education, yet end up with jobs well below their skill level. I didn't want to be that guy. I remember a driver at my old job didn't deliver a package. He was originally from Turkey. I talked to him about the situation like he was an idiot. He explained his side of the delivery attempt in broken English. I left that conversation thinking he was too dumb to get what I was saying. I later found out that he was a professor back in Turkey with a PhD. Who's the idiot now? This was my fear. I don't even have a PhD. Imagine how dumb people would think I am. Swedie assured me that they'd love my experience here. I got here and the first American I met in SFI (Swedish language class) had a degree in finance. Guess what he was doing for a living. Yup! Dishwasher!
That guy worked with numbers! What was I going to do? My background is in logistics and communication and leadership. I was going to have to have a command of the Swedish language. I worked hard at my Swedish. I had a head start from Rosetta Stone and lessons that Birgitta beat into me like I was Karate Kid and she my Mr. Miyagi. My Swedish is good. I dare say that I'm fluent. I wrote that in my resume. I had my friend that works in HR look at my resume. He said it was good. He even did a mock interview with me. I was ready to work my butt off for some company. They didn't know what a superstar they would get! I don't even fika! I bring my experience and that American drive that they see in movies that they love. This should be a piece of cake.
Nothing. I mean, I got to one interview. That didn't work out. I got used to opening my email every morning and looking for the word "tyvärr" (unfortunately). That's when I knew I had been passed up again. It got so frustrating. Maybe I was aiming too high. I stopped only applying for similar jobs than what I had back in the US. Entry-level would have to do. I worked my way up before, I'll do it again. I just need to get my foot in the door. Companies would love to have someone with a different perspective, right? That's when I began getting rejection letters saying I'm overqualified. Tyvärr. Come on, Sweden! Where do I start?
I got hired by a Canadian small business owner. I would be taking my services to a boutique. I was officially underemployed. I was very glad that someone gave me an opportunity. I was determined to be the best damn shop assistant ever. I had the opportunity to improve my Swedish every day with customer interactions. The interesting part was that somehow I could provide for my family on shop assistant wages. Swedie was studying and I was the bread winner. I'm not kidding, I would literally take home fresh baked, organic bread if there was some left over at night. I could have lived a comfortable life working at that shop, but I wanted to do more. I had their blessings to keep looking for something, and I did.
It was so frustrating. I would read job descriptions of positions that sounded exactly like what I USED to do before I was promoted. I just knew it would be a no-brainer. I would call the company after applying, just to get that extra contact. The person would read through my resume and sound impressed. They'd always remark on how good my Swedish is. Man, this was it! I'd start planning for my interview, reading up on the company. Then... tyvärr. I took solace in the fact that I wasn't alone. I read this awesome blog post by an immigrant woman that moved here with more credentials than me that waited FOUR YEARS to get the job she was qualified for. She never even got to an interview! Something was wrong here.
Swedes by nature aren't that trusting of a people. The typical Swede has a circle of friends that they've known forever and that's who they hang out with. They aren't going to speak or make eye contact or leave that comfortable shell very often (well, unless they're drunk then all bets are off). I think this transfers over to the work environment. Taking chances isn't really the thing here. They go with what they know. Many people get jobs on referrals. If no referral, then go with what you know. What they didn't know was me. Some dude that was an air traffic controller and then logistics manager with no degree to prove that he... graduated. I guess I was a wild card. You put me up against somebody named Johan Eriksson and guess which one feels like the safer pick. Especially when it's hard to fire people here. At least Johan REALLY knows the language. And culture. I want to say it's their loss. But I was the one feeling the pain.
I hit rock bottom when I applied at a popular footwear store. I got a phone call from a guy who mentioned that my resume had been chosen from over 200 applicants. The job was as a warehouse employee. Just stocking and whatnot. I would work my way up. It sounded cool and exciting. The guy switched languages to English on the phone. Cool, he likes that I'm American. He invited me to the interview. I thought it went well. I knew I could do the job. The questions were standard questions. Nothing tricky. He said there were eight people at this stage and they needed to choose three to four. I just KNEW I had it. I'm not some snot-nosed kid. I know how to apply myself and get whatever job done. Just tell me what the pay is going to be... What's that? Tyvärr! Are you kidding me? So I can't even get a job stocking shoes?
It wouldn't be a tunnel if there wasn't a light at the end. My friend was working on this project with his job and he knew my frustration with my job situation. There is a company called Yrkesdörren (The Career Door) that is made for people like me. That's how bad it is here. A rich person realized that the workplace isn't diverse enough and decided to do something about it. Yrkesdörren isn't a job program. It's a networking program. It puts educated immigrants in contact with Swedes with related backgrounds. It builds their network. I gave it a shot. I was matched with a door opener named Mikael. The meeting was supposed to be one hour, but we kicked it for two and a half. He took me around the place and I met another American guy. He gave me tips as well. He had gotten his foot in the door through a hook-up (father-in-law). That's how the game goes here. He suggested I look for international companies that have English as the working language. Good advice! I would definitely do that.
Mikael told me he would be leaving his company soon for another job at a package delivery company. My eyes lit up. That's my old territory! I left the meeting feeling good. I had learned not to get my hopes up anymore. You never know when a tyvärr is gonna pop up. But this wasn't an interview. I could feel good about this. I may even have made a friend out of this. It turns out that before Mikael left, he told his boss about me. In the end I ended up replacing Mikael. I can't thank Yrkesdörren enough. I can't thank my friend Amat enough. My job search finally ended after almost three years. My motivation now is to prove that taking a chance on an immigrant pays off in the end. My unique perspective and experience and background is going to help my company (a company that has a diversity program in place already) improve in the long run. I hope other companies here take notice and begin opening doors to the wealth of immigrant resources here. I can promise you that we're ready. Until next time...