Green card a red light for ambitious immigrants

Green card investigation part one: Only a quarter of migrants in Denmark on green cards work in jobs that use their education and experience – what went wrong?

It’s hard to imagine, but only a few years ago Denmark’s economy was booming and unemployment was at record low levels. The problem then wasn’t so much creating jobs for people, but finding suitably qualified people to take the jobs that were offered. To tackle this, the previous government established the green card scheme in 2008, which allowed non-EU nationals who fulfilled certain educational and work experience requirements to come here to find work.

The thought was that these well-educated and experienced foreigners would provide a pool of workers to fill the gaps in the job market. Except they didn’t.

“I thought obviously there would be something for me because they are advertising for highly skilled people,” Faruk Mazumder from Bangladesh said. “That was my expectation.”

After two years in Denmark, Mazumder has yet to find a full-time job in IT, a field in which he holds a master’s degree from Linköping University in Sweden.

“The situation is tough and it is quite difficult to find jobs. Most of the people who came to Denmark through the green card scheme are well educated and have master’s degrees and work experience but are still facing huge difficulties.”

Mazumder’s case is far from unique. Many migrants arriving in Denmark with green cards have turned to part-time, unskilled work as they struggle to find positions in their own fields.

The figures for green card holders are disquieting. According to a 2010 study by consulting firm Rambøll, only 28 percent of the 5,829 people that had been granted green cards were working in their fields, while 43 percent were doing unskilled work.

High hopes and poor results

Mia Mortensen handed in her master’s thesis in international development at Roskilde University this spring. Her focus was the green card scheme and her conclusion was also unflattering.

“When it was introduced, the politicians thought the green card scheme would produce a bank of highly skilled workers that could easily and quickly join the labour market,” Mortensen said. “The politicians think that the people with green cards are highly skilled and have a lot of experience. But it turns out they are only well educated, and are not the specialists that Denmark needs.”

To obtain a green card, applicants have to amass 100 points based on their education level and language skills. Once they’ve tallied up the points and handed over a 6,100 kroner fee, they are then granted the right to spend three years in Denmark looking for work.

According to Mortensen, the screening process ought to be far more robust, including personal interviews with candidates to better assess whether they are suitable for the Danish job market. She points to the many people from countries in central and southern Asia, such as India and Pakistan, that may have had the qualifications on paper, but often failed to impress employers because of poor Danish skills.

Culture shock could be a key reason why so many migrants experience problems integrating into the Danish job market. Saji Nair, from Malaysia, came to Denmark in September 2007 on a scholarship for graduate studies in corporate communications at Aarhus University. She was subsequently granted a green card and has now worked in Jyske Bank’s marketing and communications department for the past two-and-a-half years.

“I think it’s so much easier for people who have been students here than it is for people coming here fresh,” she said. “I think it’s mostly because you can get used to the culture after spending one or two years here and socialising with friends from university.”

Nair explained that while she found the transition into Danish culture easy, she met people that had a much harder time integrating.

Mortensen also criticised the government’s  lack of support for green card holders, especially those with non-western backgrounds.

“Often when politicians talk about integration they say it is the responsibility of the companies that hire the people,” Mortensen said. “It’s true the big companies do offer such schemes, but there are now many people with green cards without jobs in Denmark, so the politicians need to recognise that it’s partly their responsibility. They come from far away and we need to help them integrate both socially and into the job market.”

The Danish Green Card Association (DGCA), which is made up of green card holders, echoed these concerns in a draft report on the problems its members face. The group intends to send the report to the government later this summer.

“Most of the jobs advertised here are in Danish and there is no one to tell you that you need to have a specially formatted CV,” the report states. “Surprisingly, there are few jobs for non-westerners who do not have a professional level of Danish.”

Despite the difficulties adjusting to a new life in Denmark, many are still able to make it work after arriving with a green card. Jen Andersen moved to Denmark  last March after obtaining a green card. By May she had secured a job at A.P. Moller Maersk.

“I got quite lucky finding a job,” Andersen, an American, said. “I am highly qualified but I think my high level of English helped.”

Andersen is aware of the problems that many green card holders face and thinks the government needs to do more to help them integrate. Fellow American, Amy Clotworthy, explained how she felt her green card had “opened a lot of doors”, but added that other card holders she met felt overwhelmed by bureaucracy and the lack of government support.

“No one ‘official’ ever helped me with anything – I had to find the answers on my own,” Clotworthy said. “There don’t seem to be any resources or guidance available to ‘highly skilled foreigners’ once they’re here in the country, so everything always feels like guesswork.”

More guidance is key

The lack of contact between businesses and green card holders once they enter the country is a real problem according to Ole Steen Olsen, the head of labour market policy for Dansk Erhverv, a business advocacy group.

“We think the green card is good because it allows highly educated people to come and seek a job out of their own will,” Olsen said. “But there’s often no meeting point between Danish firms and foreigners. The authorities should give more advice to foreigners on how to seek work and what to do, as well as informing companies about the opportunity to recruit foreign people.”

Olsen added that green card holders may have been caught out because the global crisis reduced the demand for highly skilled workers. According to Olsen, the number of foreign workers employed in Denmark dropped from 24,000 in 2007 to 18,000 in 2011.

Given the changing demands in the labour market, Claus Aastrup Seidelin, labour market specialist at Dansk Industri, another business advocacy group, argued that the green card scheme needs an overhaul. Seidelin added, however, that stopping the scheme entirely would be counter-productive.

“Of course the crisis had an impact on the labour market in general but there are still areas which have a very large lack of labour, areas such as engineering, IT specialists, medical professionals. We still need to attract these people, or there will be an even bigger shortage when the crisis is over.”

Employment minister Mette Frederiksen (Socialdemokraterne), could not be reached for comment for this article, though her party has announced that the green card scheme will face an overhaul in the autumn.

The changes may limit the number of people entering the country without a chance of finding a relevant job. But according to Mortensen’s calculations, there are still about 2,100 green card holders that have not found work in their field.

If there is a silver-lining, it is that green card holders seem to be happy about living in Denmark. While 71 percent of green card holders polled in 2010 were not in work related to their education and experience, only 7.1 percent reported being unhappy about living here, and 88.7 percent wanted to stay in Denmark after their green card expires.

For non-western immigrants, Denmark’s economic and political stability is clearly attractive.

For the government, the popularity of Denmark and the green card poses a challenge. How do you retool a programme that has proven successful at drawing in skilled and talented individuals, yet leaves them with little prospect of achieving their potential once they get here?

Read the second part of our green card series: The grass is not always greener.

Below, both articles, as they appeared in our print edition.