Why Skilled Immigrants Struggle to Find Work in Norway


Statistics Norway defines 'innvandrer' (literally translated as 'someone who has wandered/traveled in') as 'someone who was born outside of Norway by non-Norwegian parents'. This is a large category, glossing over differences, life stories and self-ascribed identities. Statements like 'innvandrere strever på arbeidsmarkedet' (immigrants struggle in the labor market) are common, but imprecise. To work out what, we also need to know who.

This text refers to highly skilled immigrants. They are 'innvandrere' with university degrees, specialized skills and often sought-after professional competence in a trans-national labor market. 'Highly skilled immigrant' does not exclude other forms of identification; many highly skilled immigrants also identify as international students, self-initiated expats, sponsored expats, expat partners, internationals, refugees, lovepats, third culture kids....while others resist, or are uninterested in, labeling. In this text, I address immigrants who are already here, not challenges met by those trying to secure a visa.

Do highly skilled immigrants find work in Norway?

Yes and no, but on a general note, securing work at their competence level and in their field is more challenging for highly skilled immigrants than for highly skilled Norwegians. I'm also told by many that their experience of securing relevant work in Norway is more challenging than in other countries they have previously lived in.

Not hiring immigrants can seem unwise. There is a shortage of workers in many industries, and research indicates that businesses who have a diverse workforce hold the potential to perform better than those who do not. What is missing in the matching process?

Addressing perceived challenges for skilled immigrants in the Norwegian labour market is two-fold: we need to examine individual (job seeker) as well as organizational (job holder) factors.

Challenges for highly skilled immigrants in the labor market - individual factors

Focusing on perceived challenges for the individual job seeker, there are five main categories:

1. Language

I won't say it's impossible to find relevant work without Norwegian skills, but it is definitely seen as a relevant factor. Formally recognized B1/B2 proficiency is a requirement for some job groups, while 'fluent Norwegian' is often listed as a requirement for jobs where there are no formal requirements. Lack of language skills can be seen as a hindrance to efficient onboarding as well as to 'fitting in' with co-workers in companies where the working and socializing language is Norwegian.

Acquiring necessary language skills can pose a considerable challenge for highly skilled immigrants. Often excluded from state-sponsored language training, they are left to look for affordable private language classes and juggle Norwegian, work/looking for work, integration and supporting a family.

2. Cultural competence

A study done by Trine Fossland with Tromsø University as well as a report from Norwegian research center FaFo indicate that lack of cultural competence is seen as another hurdle for skilled immigrants to overcome in entering the job market at an appropriate level. Education, experience, and references are not enough; you also need to understand work-place cultural codes, expectations, and how to 'translate' and transfer skill sets to a Norwegian context.

Lack of cultural competence is also mentioned in Ida Christin Vant Johansens study of intentional diversity in recruiting and management in a Norwegian private sector company. The company is less likely to hire for diversity in highly skilled management positions than in low skills positions, she says. This is explained partly by referring to challenges based on different cultural understandings of the leadership role.

3. Unfamiliar credentials and references

'Far-away' educational credentials or references are less likely to be trusted or properly evaluated by employers, thus creating a barrier to employment, shared Associate Professor Anette Risberg in a recent presentation of Swedish data. This sentiment can be heard in career workshops aimed at the target group in Norway, too; securing Norwegian references and Norwegian work experience is advisable. Additionally, some qualifications (teacher, doctor, nurse, psychologist, physiotherapist to name a few) need a Norwegian approval or authorization, sometimes requiring potentially time-consuming additional training for the immigrant. Trine Fossland's data shows that this is especially challenging in the medical field.

4. Networking

Perhaps as an extension to lack of familiar credentials is lack of a familiar, or local, network. Building a network is essential when looking for work in Norway, since there are several opportunities that do not go through the officially recognized channels / portals such as Finn.no and NAV. A network, indicates Trine Fossland's research, can also support the immigrant in his / her effort to identify and effectively communicate a 'foreign' background and skills as something that is relevant in Norway. One must, however, build 'the right network'; a professional network consisting solely of other immigrants may not be the best tactical move for securing relevant work in Norway.

5. Family structure

Trine Fossland raises one more perceived challenge for highly skilled immigrants seeking work in Norway, namely gender, life stage and family. She states that

'...the risk of not getting a job was also connected to gender and family obligations and the widening time span since the migrants' previous high skilled job (or any relevant work at all)'

and continues to explain how many, especially women, struggled to join the formal work force upon arriving when the children were young, because the family had no local support system to back two parents working full time. This is common among expat partners worldwide, and the bridge from 'stay-at-home' to 'gainfully employed' often grows longer with years passed.

What can be done? From focusing on the individual to focusing on the organization

Finding gainful employment for highly skilled migrants in Norway is potentially more long and winding than climbing Preikestolen! What can be done?

Recent research from Sweden by Anette Risberg and Laurence Romani shows that efforts focusing on the individual and his or her potential to adapt to local employment norms are absolutely helpful. Language classes and increased cultural competence as well as coaching in CV- and cover-letter writing can increase the highly skilled immigrants' chance to secure relevant work.

This is confirmed in Norwegian data from Fafo, where mentor programs focusing on these skills as well as network building and personal relationships were evaluated. Mentor programs can be an important contributing factor on the path to gainful employment for highly skilled immigrants, but they should be as tailored as possible, bridging the mentee competence gap rather than providing general training. For example, language classes and interview-training specifically targeted to the mentee's industry was experienced as far more relevant than general language and job-seeking classes.

We may, however, need to widen our focus to succeed with making use of highly skilled immigrants as a resource in the workforce. We need to work on individual factors and ensure that competence gaps are bridged, but we also need to examine organizational factors.

Job holders, recruiters and HR representatives are the gatekeepers to work participation. Fafo's report on mentoring as a path to gainful employment in Norway introduces a distinction between 'person-job fit' (are you qualified) and 'person-organization fit' (do you fit the organization profile). They continue to state that 'person-organization fit' can be seen as

  • looking for someone who is a similar addition to the organization (cultural fit), or

  • looking for someone who is a complementary addition (cultural add).

Data indicate that hiring managers often, more or less consciously, look for someone who fits the first description, creating a homogenous work environment. This is confirmed in Risberg and Romani's (2021) data from Sweden, which shows that recruiters had a pronounced tendency to look for someone 'similar to me'. Hiring for cultural fit was seen to protect organizational normalcy, 'the way we do it here at our work-place' from potential 'risk' or change/disruption.

Interestingly, hiring managers with international experience are more likely to hire other internationals, and in organizations where the workforce is already culturally diverse, there is a higher willingness to hire immigrants, shared Risberg in a recent talk organized by recruiting agency Alva Labs.

What is 'normalcy'?

'Normalcy', organizational or otherwise, is a social construct. If we are protecting organizational normalcy, we also need to decide what that normalcy entails.

Perhaps the key to hiring a more diverse workforce lies somewhere in the combination of the individual's willingness to adapt and the organization's willingness to do a structural audit, redefine organizational normalcy and create workplaces that reflect and respect a diverse reality.

Are you a highly skilled immigrant in Norway? Exasperated, or unsure where to start? You can reach me in the comments field below.