Next week marks the end of my 90-day tourist visa, and I feel like I haven't made much progress since arriving in August. What's the status of my job search and so forth? Well, it's pretty grim. As a U.S. citizen who came here on my own, I don't have residency/work advantages afforded to EU citizens and Swedish spouses or partners. I knew that this life change would be a challenge, although I didn't realize it would be an almost insurmountable challenge. After months of studying the language, applying to jobs, networking like crazy, exploring the country, and dating Swedish men, I have reached a fork in the road: Continue with the Sisyphean task of trying to make a life here in Sweden or move to another country (Australia is looking good). My dream is/was to work as an urban planner for the City of Gothenburg (Göteborgs Stad), but I would be just as happy moving to another country where I feel more welcome. I have an appointment with Migrationsverket this week, where I will apply to extend my tourist visa so I can continue studying Swedish and looking for a foothold; their decision will essentially determine my future.
It is worth quickly noting that even when/if one gets a job here, it isn't necessarily smooth sailing from there on out. For years Sweden has had a severe housing shortage in the major cities, with Göteborg boasting a nearly 5-year waiting period for an apartment and Stockholm a 20-year period. Housing is controlled by the government in Sweden, so one either gets in line for housing or buys their own housing. A "second hand" rental market does exist, although it also is difficult to find decent housing this way and rentals tend to be more expensive and leave the tenant at the mercy of the lease-holder (aka, the lease-holder can cancel a lease on a whim and so forth). Currently I am paying Airbnb $2,400 a month for a windowless room undergoing a rather loud exterior renovation, so as much as I'd like to think my living situation couldn't get worse, it seems entirely possibly that it can.
Yet despite not gaining much traction in the job, housing, or love departments, I have learned a lot about working (or not working) in Sweden. Here are the four greatest challenges I have faced so far and the wisdom I have gained from them.
1. One cannot get a job without a work permit, and one cannot get a work permit without a job.
Technically I am an immigrant in this country, coming to this new place in search of a better life not necessarily for myself but for my future children. I understood that by moving here I would be starting from scratch, meaning that I was okay with the prospect of doing unskilled work despite having a master's degree and relevant work experience. Unfortunately, I am even locked out of that market because I don't have a work permit. Because according to Sweden.se, "To qualify for a work permit, you must have received an official offer of employment from a Swedish employer." So....
2. It is extremely difficult to get a job here without being fluent in Swedish, and the person will tell you this in perfect English.
Another Catch-22. I understand the reasoning behind this, which is why I studied Swedish with Babbel before coming here, and why I enrolled in intensive Swedish language classes at the local Folkuniversitetet within a week of my arrival. If I want to live in Sweden and integrate into the community, I must learn the local language and customs, even if the majority of Sweden speaks English better than many U.S. residents. Yet despite taking this initiative and completing the two basic levels of Swedish (at $750/level), employers do not seem to care. (It is worth noting that people living here with a personnummer, or Sweden's version of the Social Security Number, can take free Swedish for Immigrants language courses and receive a living stipend while doing so.) Even offers to work as a 'volunteer intern' to help with projects are ignored. Apparently I am not the only one frustrated by this because a Google search reveals many articles and feisty discussions on this topic, in English of course. And just to drive my point home, some well-educated friends of mine from Folkuniversitetet were rejected from working as dog walkers because they don't speak Swedish fluently. You literally couldn't make this stuff up.
3. The easiest way to live in Sweden long-term is by marrying a Swede, or at least that's what the Arbetsförmedlingen employee told me. He said he was joking, but we both knew he wasn't.
Coming from an employee of the Swedish job agency, I found that little tip to be rather discouraging. Plus, despite having Europe's highest proportion of singles, it is extremely difficult to date in Sweden. And to add insult to injury, this country consistently ranks as one of the loneliest and least-welcoming places in the world for expats. Great.
4. Swedes want to hire Swedes, end of discussion.
There have been numerous articles and studies supporting this, and it is only getting more apparent with the influx of immigrants and growing social tensions. Sure, my name isn't Arabic (which are treated the worst), but unless I change my last name to "Mitchellsson" my job application has a slim chance of piquing HR's interest. So when I read a job posting that says the employer "values diversity and practices open-mindedness," I take this to mean that they would consider hiring a Swede with dark hair. And because Swedes will go to great lengths to avoid conflicts, they won't tell non-Swedes directly that they aren't welcome. For example, I went to one potential employer and talked with a lady in HR, telling her that I was very interested in working there and I had the skills they needed. I offered to work as a volunteer even, since I was still in the process of learning the language. She suggested I look on their jobs page and submit an application to positions that interested me. Seeing as I had already done this a few times with no response, I pressed her further and asked if they would actually hire someone like me. "No," she said flatly. Okey dokey, moving on...
So, if anyone out there is reading this blog post and is considering packing up and moving to Sweden to live long-term, hopefully this information will be helpful in understanding the reality of the situation. Of course, every person and every situation is different, so this is just my perspective on what I have experienced so far here. With Sweden letting in so many asylum seekers recently (about 163,000 in 2015, in this country of almost 9 million), government programs and people in my situation are especially feeling the effects of an overburdened system. As the Swedes say, "Så....."