International talent continues to forgo Copenhagen

Room for improvement, but integration dilemmas, an inflexible job market, high taxes and stringent immigration laws all contribute to educated foreigners going elsewhere

Copenhagen is lagging far behind other European cities when it comes to the recruiting and retaining of international professionals.

The think tank Copenhagen Economics teamed up with the regional development organisation Reglab and found that the Danish capital is struggling to compete when it comes to attracting highly-skilled foreign labour.

Copenhagen is in the second worst category when it comes to the percentage of all highly-skilled workers being foreign. In 2010, only about 12 percent of highly-skilled workers in the city were foreign, compared to over 35 percent in cites such as Brussels, London, Zürich and Vienna. In neighbouring Stockholm, it’s better too, at nearly 25 percent.

Copenhagen also falters when it comes to the average annual growth rate of highly-skilled workers. Between 2000 and 2008, the growth rate in Copenhagen was measured at a paltry three percent, while it was well over ten percent in cities like Madrid, Helsinki and Dublin.

A lack of openness, foreign investment and businesses choosing to only hire locally has led to an environment bereft of international experts, something the mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen (Socialdemokraterne), aims to change.

"We know that when we're compared to cities like Stockholm, they're doing better, and we will strive to raise the percentage of foreign skilled labour by five to ten percent," Jensen told Navigation magazine. "And perhaps we're not as open and welcoming to our foreign colleagues as we think we are."

There are plenty of reasons why Denmark should be trying to attract international talent to its windy shores rather than neglecting them.

Skilled foreign workers contribute to the socio-economic arena by paying higher taxes than the average Dane, being less likely to seek social benefits and providing major boosts for the businesses that hire them, in terms of productivity, export and Denmark’s ability to compete internationally.

“Two of Denmark’s biggest economic challenges are low productivity development and problems financing the welfare state. Highly-educated foreign workers solve both issues,” Jan Rose Skaksen, professor at Copenhagen Business School, told Navigation magazine.

In the analysis report, 'Højtuddannede invandreres bidrag til det danske samfund' (Highly educated immigrants' contributions to Danish society), Skaksen indicated that an average highly-educated immigrant, with family, stays in Denmark for eight years and contributes 1.9 million kroner to the tax coffers.

Foreign talents also contribute to business in the form of knowledge of foreign markets, networks and cultures. Businesses can tap that knowledge to establish export deals and other business collaborations. Statistics from the recent report 'Do Foreign Experts Increase the Productivity of Domestic Firms?' convey that the employment of a foreign talent increases the probability that a business exports by 2.7 percent while the average wage in said business rises by 2.4 percent three years after the person is hired.

Denmark expects foreigners to be integrated and to take an active role in society, learn the language, and conform to the welfare state. But the major issue with his mentality is that many international experts are ‘career nomads’ and do not come to Denmark with ambitions to stay permanently. Denmark is simply a stepping stone on their career path and they only stay for as long as it makes sense.

Dennis Nørmark, a senior consultant from Living Institute, has carried out a number of focus group interviews with workers and their spouses in connection with the surveys.

“An important point is that most of them have not come here because they are attracted to Denmark as such, or by the opportunity to be a part of their welfare state,” Nørmark told Navigation magazine. “They are here because of a specific career opportunity and typically that is also the same reason they leave the country again”

As opposed to many other cities in Europe, barriers such as social integration, an impossible housing market, a sense of feeling welcome and being able to settle, means that for many highly educated experts, their stay in Denmark becomes a short one.

Eva Komandjaja says that she feels less like a foreigner in Oslo than she does in Copenhagen (Private photo)Eva Komandjaja is from Indonesia and works an engineer for a consulting firm. She has lived and worked in Oslo as well as Copenhagen and sees a clear distinction between the two Scandinavian capitals.

"I think it would be hard to compare Oslo to Copenhagen in some ways because I never felt treated as a 'foreigner' in Oslo. Perhaps they're more open to thinking that not all Scandinavians should be blonde and blue eyed." Komandjaja told The Copenhagen Post. "I was lucky that I am married to a Dane so he helped me sorting out all the documents I needed and taught me the system and so on, but I hate having to depend on someone to do that."

Komandjaja also indicated that her interactions with Norway's immigration services were much smoother than those with Denmark's immigration services, Udlændingestyrelsen.

The Danish Immigration Services are regularly lambasted for being far too bureaucratic, painfully slow and shockingly ill-informed about the immigration protocol that they are in charge of dispensing. Australian green card seeker, Nadia Matveeva, says the critique is warranted.

“You just need to go there once to understand why it’s so inefficient. I’ve been there four times now, waiting an average of six hours each time,” Matveeva told The Copenhagen Post. “It’s just so frustrating to sit there for hours to simply be told some insignificant bit of information that so easily could have been said over the phone.”

But the Immigration Services are not the only ones to blame. Denmark has some of the most strict and dynamic immigration laws in Europe and although the government has softened them a bit in May and June, they still provide a formidable obstacle to foreigners looking to come to Denmark.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to keep and attract foreign talent to Denmark, some of which have already been identified by the government and are being implemented.

Immigration laws have been slightly eased under the current Socialdemokraterne-led government, and when it comes to permanent residence applications, language qualifications have been reduced while the new regulations will in the future consider most educations to be the equivalent of full-time work. This is especially important for international students who wish to stay in Denmark and look for work after completing their studies.

“There is no doubt that the permanent residence changes have increased the number of applications and it’s the single most important step that the government has taken,” immigration lawyer Åge Kramp told Copenhagen Post. “And the automatic green card for finishing students as proposed by Radikale will be a good way for students to find qualified jobs in Denmark through the networks and experiences they have created.”

But despite the move in a positive direction, Kramp maintains that a big issue for green card holders stems from the fact that they are not permitted to have their own private company, and thus are unable to create jobs, only acquire them.

Immigration lawyer Ã…ge Kramp said law changes have helped, but not enough (Photo: Peter Stanners)Additionally, a law change from 2010 allowing international schools in Denmark to expand and create new off-site campuses, has meant that schools, such as Copenhagen International School, have been able to establish more campuses and offer more placements for foreign children.

The government has also begun addressing the integration issues that persist in Copenhagen. The expat-package, which is part of the 2013 Inclusion Agreement, is designed to allow foreigners a smoother transition to life in Denmark by having a more inclusion-orientated labour market while implementing schemes that will make Copenhagen a more open and welcoming city.

To tackle the agonising bureaucracy of the Immigration Services, the government only has to look to the 'Expat Centre' in Amsterdam for inspiration. Here, immigration services, councils, tax authorities and businesses have teamed up to design effective ‘fast tracks’ that initiate procedures before the foreign worker even arrives to the country.

American Douglas Wilson has been in Denmark since 2007 and co-owns the computer game development company, Die Gute Fabrik. He contends that it’s not easy for foreigners to acclimatise to Denmark, although it does help with a little experience.

 “Although my work life is good, I definitely feel challenged feeling at home, as there is that language and culture barrier,” Wilson told The Copenhagen Post. “I got my foot in the door because I did my masters here before I started working, but I can imagine how tough it would be just arriving in Denmark with no prior familiarity.”