Researchers: Previous employment and Swedish classes not valued by employers when refugees apply for low-skilled jobs

Employers do not value previous work experience and having completed Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) when refugees apply for jobs with low skill requirements. This is shown in a new SNS report by economists Simon Ek, Mats Hammarstedt and Per Skedinger. They also show that low-skilled jobs serve as a point of entry into the Swedish labour market for people from Africa and the Middle East.

The large group of refugees from Africa and the Middle East have found it particularly difficult to establish themselves in the Swedish labour market. Many of them have a low level of education and a poor command of Swedish.

The researchers study what happens to immigrants from these regions who are hired for low-skilled jobs. The analysis is based on extensive data from Statistics Sweden covering the period 2000–2017. Individuals being hired for low-skilled jobs are compared to those who were unemployed as well as those who were employed in more qualified positions. As it turns out, having a job with low skill requirements is more frequently associated with long-term employment and higher earned income for foreign-born individuals with weak ties to the labour market. However, low-skilled jobs do not to any significant extent lead to more qualified jobs and higher wages.

The researchers have also carried out an experiment in which they submitted job applications from fictitious Syrian refugee immigrants to advertised jobs requiring no specific qualifications. These applications communicated different levels of previous experiences from low-skilled jobs and having completed Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). The researchers find no support for experience or SFI increasing the chances of being called for an interview.

“A possible explanation for the results of this experiment is that there is strong competition for many low-skilled jobs, implying a large number of applicants per position. In such cases, previous work experience and having completed SFI are not seen as sufficiently qualifying”, says Mats Hammarstedt, professor of economics at Linnaeus University in Växjö and affiliated with IFN.

The experiment also shows that female applicants were more likely to receive positive feedback compared to male applicants.

“Since the employment rate is low among women from countries outside of Europe, we find the higher probability of female applicants receiving feedback particularly interesting. This indicates that the integration of this group could be improved if they were to apply for jobs to a greater extent”, says Per Skedinger, researcher at IFN and adjunct professor of economics at Linnaeus University in Växjö.

The researchers argue that a battery of different measures is needed to facilitate newly arrived immigrants entering the labour market and to increase upward mobility from jobs with low skill requirements. Among other things, they propose a more flexible wage formation with lower minimum wages for low-skilled jobs in order to create more such jobs. At the same time, the opportunities for further training need to be generous to ensure that fewer people are stuck in low-paid jobs. The authors also argue that SFI should be improved so that employers can be sure that those having completed the training have sufficient knowledge of Swedish.

Facts on the report

In the analysis based on public register data, low-skilled jobs are defined as occupations at the lowest skill level according to the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) used by Statistics Sweden, requiring at most primary education, as well as occupations similar in terms of average monthly salaries and the proportion of employees in the occupation lacking secondary education.

The field experiment is a correspondence study, where fictitious applications are sent to real employers. Since the background characteristics of the applicants vary randomly, the researchers are able to identify causal relationships between these characteristics and the extent to which the employer requests more information from the applicants and/or invites the applicants for an interview. The study included fictitious young individuals from Syria applying for low-skilled jobs advertised on the Swedish Public Employment Service’s portal Platsbanken. A total of over 2,000 applications were submitted throughout 2019.


Simon Ek is a PhD student in economics at Uppsala University and affiliated with the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN)

Mats Hammarstedt is a professor of economics at the Linnaeus University in Växjö and affiliated with IFN

Per Skedinger is a researcher at IFN and an adjunct professor of economics at the Linnaeus University in Växjö

Download a summary of the report