Immigrants battle under-employment

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Highly skilled and highly educated immigrants in Norway have long faced huge challenges finding work in line with their qualifications. Their battles not only point up underlying prejudice on the part of employers: A new study shows that Norway’s failure to include them in the workforce is also costing society as much as NOK 6 billion a year.

Jobs and job creation is a big issue in the current election campaign, and for immigrants, finding relevant work can be difficult indeed. The Progress Party has long stressed the need for immigrants to learn Norwegian and integrate into Norwegian society, but even when they do, they still often face chronic under-employment. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Newspaper Aftenposten’s A-Magasinet reports that the study, conducted by Vista Analyse for the state commission on inclusion, highlights the problems surrounding immigrants who aren’t allowed to use their skills and education in Norway, or who find themselves in jobs for which they are highly over-qualified. That leads to chronic under-employment.

A-Magasinet reported on the cases of a political scientist from France who’s working in a bakery in Oslo, an engineer from Syria who’s working as a boat mechanic in Moss, and a TV and film actor from Nigeria with a university degree in communications who’s washing floors in Oslo. The magazine also profiled a lawyer who formerly worked with border control issues in Romania who’s now working at a pre-school outside Ålesund, a doctor from Madagascar who was relegated to being a care assistant at an Oslo nursing home, and a computer engineer from Bulgaria who could only find a job at a day care center for children in Askim, southeast of Oslo.

“It’s been difficult not to be able to have the responsibility I had as a doctor,” Christian Razafimahatombo, age 31, told A-Magasinet. His medical education, along with the educations of all the immigrants A-Magasinet interviewed, has been approved by the state evaluation agency NOKUT. He had worked as a doctor both in Madagascar and Belgium before moving to Norway, where he spent the next four years studying Norwegian to pass the required language and professional tests needed for authorization to work as a doctor. The only job he’s managed to find, however, is as an assistant at the nursing home.

“There are very many of us foreign doctors in Norway who don’t get hired for jobs for which we’re qualified,” he told A-Magasinet. Not only is that frustrating for them all, but it means they can go for years without actually practicing medicine, not least because of the long authorization period. “Our knowledge and skills that aren’t being used will get rusty,” he added.

Competence not put to use
In the case of foreign health care professionals, Norway’s failure to put them to work contributes to the calculations of the cost to society. The Norwegian state finances the education of doctors and all others earning university degrees, at great expense. Those moving to Norway from abroad bring with them lots of competence that hasn’t cost the Norwegian state anything, yet that competence isn’t put to use.

Foreigners like the doctor from Madagascar are among an estimated 28,000 immigrants in Norway who are deemed as being overqualified for the jobs they hold. In addition come all those who haven’t found jobs at all. State statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) reports that immigrants make up a much higher portion of those overqualified for their jobs than the rest of the population, at between 34 and 45 percent. Even after living in Norway for many years and becoming fluent in Norwegian, many never find relevant jobs.

Vista Analyse used factors including lower pay and lost tax revenues in compiling the cost to society as a whole. “Such calculations always contain some uncertainty, but the numbers here are regardless extremely high,” Tyra Ekhaugen, an economist and manager at Vista Analyse, told A-Magasinet.

Daniel Appyday, the actor and communications graduate from Nigeria, made it to the finals of the national talent show Norske Talenter. When he lived in Nigeria, he ran his own production company and appeared in several films and TV series. Now his colleagues and the boss of the cleaning company where he works in Oslo are aware of his background, but he’s still washing floors. Appyday describes Norway as a country “with great advantages” and “lots of nice people,” but feels the society is closed. “Norwegian employers don’t trust those of us who come from the outside,” he told A-Magasinet. “Many Norwegians think it’s difficult to relate to foreigners.”

Changing her name didn’t help much
Several others interviewed by the magazine agree. “After I took my (Norwegian) husband’s last name, I finally began being called into job interviews,” said Emilia Alvestad, the lawyer from Romania. But then she was told she didn’t speak Norwegian well enough, even though she had studied the language and she and her Norwegian husband only speak Norwegian at home. She also speaks French, English and Romanian and has international work experience, but that wasn’t good enough for potential Norwegian employers. In order to work with international law in Norway she was told she also must have a Norwegian law education. She finds it ironic that Norwegian youth are encouraged to travel and study abroad, “while those of us coming with high education from abroad don’t seem to have any value.”

Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservative Party told A-Magasinet he’s also frustrated tha the competence of highly educated immigrants is used to such a small degree in Norway. “The most important thing is for folks to have a job,” he said. “It’s a paradox that we use lots of resources to attract highly skilled workers, at the same those who already live here experience difficulties in the labour market.”

Language barriers aren’t the only problem. SSB has pointed out that employers can choose to consider other factors than just formal education and language during the hiring process. The relevance of foreign education can also vary and smaller communities around Norway may not offer jobs that match immigrants’ education.

“It can also be pure protectionism,” said Bernt Bratsberg, a senior researcher at Frischsenteret at the University of Oslo. “Maybe those doing the hiring simply prefer to see a diploma from a school they recognize.” He also noted that most immigrants lack a network in Norway.

‘Fear of foreigners’
And then there’s the “fear of foreigners” that still exists in Norway. “I have applied for many jobs, but never been called in for an interview,” Stanislava Vasileva, the computer and systems engineer from Bulgaria and graduate of the Technical University of Sofia, told A-Magasinet. “I’ve heard that it would be easier if I changed my name, that then employers would evaluate my competence and CV instead of being hung up on my name. That’s sad.” She was even told by job specialists at state welfare and employment agency NAV that she was too well-qualified to get any help from them: “We want to give priority to those who have the greatest needs,” NAV office chief Kristin Kvanvig told A-Magasinet.

“It’s been tough to realize that in Norway, I’ll probably never get to work with what I was educated and trained to do, and where I have experience,” said the 35-year-old former product manager for Canon and Tornado Systems Ltd in Sofia.

Røe-Eriksen said the system for evaluating competence from abroad “is too poor, too complicated and takes too long.” Kjersti Granaasen of national employers’ organization NHO worked for several years as project leader for a talent program called Global Future, that had a goal of mobilizing highly educated immigrants for jobs at Norwegian businesses. She confirmed that immigrants need networks and lots of initiative to understand how the job market functions in Norway.

Offered to work for free
Mohammed Marwan Sheikh Yousef, who has not changed his name either, finally got a break after offering to work for free at a boat yard in Moss. He was educated in Egypt and worked as a chief engineer in Syria where he had responsibility for several containerships. He traveled a lot in his job, speaks Arabic, English and now Norwegian, and said he had a good life until civil war broke out. He and his wife, a French teacher, were forced to flee and came to Norway with their family as refugees.

“Those of us who fled Syria are blacklisted by the authorities and can’t get our papers released,” Yousef told A-Magasinet. He ended up proving to those running the boatyard in Moss that he could work on vessels and was hired as a mechanic. He is now at least working within his field, but at a lower level than his competence would allow. He still thinks he’s lucky. His wife hasn’t fared as well, and hasn’t worked since arriving in Norway.

The chronic underemployment faced by immigrants underscores that integration into the Norwegian work force goes both ways: Not only do immigrants need to learn Norwegian and adapt to the Norwegian system, employers need to give them a chance. “I want to be part of society and contribute with what I can,” said Appyday. “I just have to get the opportunity to do so.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund