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How A Swedish Social Enterprise Is Transforming Lives

In a converted tram depot in downtown Stockholm, a young company is helping to transform the lives of newcomers to Sweden by helping them to find jobs. Since Mark and Dea Ahlenius launched Jobbentrén 18 months ago, they have helped 41 people not just to find jobs, but to stay in them.

By – Heather Farmbrough      

“The Swedish labour market is very hard for newcomers if you don’t have any connections,” says Dea Ahlenius. “Seven out of ten jobs in Sweden come through connections, and that is one thing that most newcomers don’t have.”

Sweden, which has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than almost any other western country, has struggled to integrate them into its economy. Even when they have been given work and residency permits, newcomers are three times as likely to be unemployed as native Swedes. Most jobs in Sweden require formal education, but this is something few newcomers have.  More than 80% of the people Jobbentrén has helped have fled from conflict zones.

The Swedish government gives employers subsidies and tax breaks if they employ newcomers. However, as Dea Ahlenius points out,  “There are so many companies looking for staff and they want to reach new target audiences, but they don’t necessarily understand the subsidies for employing newcomers. Or maybe they have once had a bad experience.”

So Jobbentrén’s team of five helps fill the gap, by finding employees, going to housing communities and working with employment agencies, and using social media. They help with job applications, interview technique and mentoring. But they don’t stop there. They match newcomers with Swedish friends and activities – such as football, going to a museum or learning about Swedish food. Playing in a football team is hard when you don’t know anyone.

Equally important is understanding some of the unwritten rules and customs of the Swedish workplace. “Before an employee starts work, we always meet up with them again,” explains Mark Ahlenius. “We suggest they put as many work numbers in their mobiles as they can, because if a Swedish worker is even two minutes’ late, they should call and say they are going to be late. Lateness is considered very rude in Sweden. There’s an unspoken dress code as well – the rule is don’t stick out.”

Each employee is assigned a coach who they will meet up with two or three times a month for mentoring. It works. Only one of Jobbentrén’s new employees has given up his job, while two have subsequently moved for promotion.

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Ville Stjernström, the first team member to join the Ahlenius twins, tells me that one of the biggest challenges for non-Swedes can be the lack of hierarchy.  “We try to encourage people to use their initiative, but it can be difficult, because they are from such a different culture. People may want to have a discussion with their boss, but they’re not used to the idea that they can just simply talk to them. We also explain they have rights at work. When the first guy I placed dropped a tray of champagne glasses, he called me at 11 at night to ask how much he’d have to pay for the breakages!”

 Jobbentrén makes money by charging a fee roughly equivalent to half of the subsidies and tax breaks that employers will get from the government for taking on a newcomer. Mark and Dea Ahlenius plough any profits back into the business. To occupy the subsidised space at Norrsken House, the former tram depot which is now a social startup hub thanks to Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalbarth, they had to pitch a business case and a demonstration of commitment. For the first year, they didn’t draw a salary; now they take home pay similar to an entry grade teacher. In a city where the lucky few are getting rich from startups, they shrug their shoulders and say they aren’t really motivated by money.

Besides, adds Dea Ahlenius, there are other compensations: they don’t have a loan or outside shareholders, they don’t work long hours and they have fun on the job. Her ambition is to grow the company and help more and more newcomers, not just to write a resume and get a job, but to become coaches and mentors in turn.

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