I am not bringing any news when I am stressing the importance for any Swedish company to compete on a global market whilst committing locally. Nor do I surprise anyone by claiming that this depends on hiring international talent. You are more than familiar with this rhetoric, but like me, you might not see things happening fast enough.
Although many Swedish businesses and organisations have already accomplished a transition to a fully multi-cultural work environment, other companies are still in progress, experiencing a somehow painful process of re-defining themselves in accordance with the new demands of the global market.
I am personally – or rather, professionally, involved in this shift.
My business helps international professionals to master the Swedish language, and to deal with cultural particularities that need special attention in intercultural teamwork. Whilst a couple of my clients are currently looking for work, most of them are pursuing successful careers in different sectors; research, design, finance, IT, engineering, marketing. Some of them need to learn Swedish in order to take the next step in their career. Others experience difficulties understanding non-verbal messages, and come to me to develop strategies to decipher Swedish patterns of communication, with the ambition of improving their collaboration and management skills. Many speak only English at work, and decode Swedish eccentricities with a critical mind-set and a sense of humour. They just want to learn some Swedish for the fun of it.
When explaining my business to Swedes, I am met with enthusiasm and admiration.
I am certainly working for a good cause! Many want to help out. Someone has a grandfather who urgently needs to learn how to send an email. Maybe one of my clients could assist with that? Foreigners can be really good with computers, they have been told. Someone else talks passionately about voluntary integration measures directed at newly arrived refugees. Could I perhaps help her to get in touch with one of them for a välkomstfika (welcome ceremony consisting of coffee and cake)? The term enkla jobb – simple jobs – recurs in each conversation.
I work as a teacher. I am a parent of twins. Objectively speaking, I possess some significant pedagogic skills and patience. But although I repeat and re-phrase the qualifications of my clients (MA, MSc, MBA, PhD), I am persistently misunderstood. There seems to be a huge misconception amongst many – not all, of course – Swedes; that an international background is incompatible with formal skills or qualifications. My work is mistaken for some sort of charity organisation. And to make things clear, for my business, that is certainly not the case. My services are not for free. They are not even cheap.
And please, do not get me wrong. Naturally, there are also people coming to Sweden with few or no qualifications. They are as welcome. But I astounded to discover how inaccurate and binary a picture many Swedes have of what competence non-Swedes could contribute with, to our society and economy.
I am trying to put my finger on the reason why Swedes appear not to recognise qualifications from outside the Nordics.
My impression is that, despite all of this, most Swedish companies and individuals are genuinely keen on creating and sustaining diverse teams. We are a pragmatic people, we are not very reluctant to change, we have good English skills, we are perfectly aware of our smallness on this planet, and the concurrent need to compete globally. Still, our knowledge of what educational and professional practice look like abroad is poor and out-dated. Anyone can draw the conclusion that because of this, plenty of intelligent, qualified internationals miss out on career opportunities. Interestingly enough, anecdotal evidence suggests that the same applies also to Swedes returning from studies or work abroad. This makes me think that it is not not being Swedish that is an impediment, but rather not having been moulded the Swedish way, and therefore not being as easily measurable according to Swedish criteria.
Ethnocentrism is nothing unique.
Most cultures consider themselves superior to others, although topics for concern vary across the globe. What I think is particularly awkward about Sweden, is that we are dealing with a large portion of self-complacency and very little curiosity for alternative solutions, coupled with all the symptoms of a small country, including a deeply rooted national inferiority complex.
Although we are confident that our solutions are the best, we lack the collective self-esteem of, say, America. We cannot imagine why anyone actually meeting our criteria would actively choose to come here. Thus, we are unable to take the initiative for talent attraction measures such as the US H-1B visa. This system does not only pave the way for qualified professionals to get into specialty occupations, but also confirm the importance of hiring from overseas.
How do we see ourselves?
If you are familiar with Swedish history, you know the outline of the last 150 years. Sweden spent the last few thousands of years being cold, poor and painfully behind, up until the moment industrialisation took off, which also took place much later than in our neighbouring countries. Within a matter of decades, this small, insignificant nation was transformed into an efficiently running welfare state, receiving international recognition for our outstanding educational system, high-skilled workforce, generous healthcare system, and efforts in humanitarian aid. Much of this was thanks to the opportunities presented by Europe recovering after the wars. Sweden was relatively untouched, and could export necessary resources for the urgent reconstruction. Foreign trade financed the implementation of the Swedish model, as per ideologies formulated in the beginning of the century. It did not take long until we positioned ourselves on the very forefront of modernity, embracing the comforts of central heating and new technology.
Still remembering our humble past, and the consequent mass-emigration to America, Swedes find satisfaction in finally prodviding a destination for those seeking a better life. We are proud of having organised such a perfect society, and we genuinely welcome newcomers to our country. I requires a bit of training to become a part in our beautiful machinery, but in the end, everyone deserves to be Swedish!
Does this really describe contemporary Swedish society? Remember the Pisa results that shocked a nation not so long ago? That was no coincidence. We are no longer guaranteed the status we once had. In fact, our status was never guaranteed. What we enjoyed was a mere parenthesis in history, that depended much on external circumstances and a little on progress in technology. We are reminded of something that we never really forgot, that we are a small, climatically disadvantaged nation on the outskirts of Europe. There are reasons for questioning ourselves.
To become world leading, we must first grasp, that, we are not.
Speculations aside, with the world catching up out there, and some places even heading towards brighter futures than we are, Swedish businesses are more than ever in urgent need of attracting international talent. We need to find practical and applicable solutions to make such recruitment easier.
First, Swedish business environment needs to overcome the cultural bias that makes us take for granted our social, educational and professional superiority. Second, companies must adopt meritocratic recruitment procedures that are valid beyond the cultural norms of Scandinavia. Such structural change is entirely conditional on updated knowledge of educational standards and professional practice in a global perspective, as well as integration of cultural self-awareness and objectivity.
In relation to this, in a forthcoming series of articles on LinkedIn, I will present a number of questions that we need to address in order to realise this, and subsequently, sustain ourselves as competitors on the globalised market:
- How do we value and evaluate higher education in an international perspective? Why should we pay more respect to this section on applicants’ CV’s?
- What work experience does actually count as relevant when we are hiring international professionals? Why are there reasons to investigate the full story behind an average-looking résumé?
- How can our own use of language affect our perception of others?
- How do we deal with cultural differences affecting communication, instead of defining corporate language as either ‘English’, or ‘Swedish’?
- What personal qualities and achievements are considered relevant when considering employment, in Sweden and elsewhere? How do we distinguish meaningless trends from genuine abilities?
- How can we be clear about practical details in order to create a work environment where everyone can use their maximum potential?