Where Bosses Will Be Your Friends (Denmark)

Where bosses will be your friends
A desperate plea for skilled workers who can bear to stay

Apr 3rd 2008 | COPENHAGEN
From The Economist print edition

IT MIGHT be the endless pine forests, the locals beating themselves with birch twigs in the sauna or the odd notion of golfing in the snow. Whichever it is, the Finnish labour ministry's promotional video to attract skilled foreign workers has a ring of desperation. The video (which is available in English, Polish and Romanian) seeks to brand the country as the cool attic of Europe and lists Finland's attractions: high quality of life, clean air, good schools and managers who treat workers almost like friends.

The Finns and their Nordic neighbours have reason to worry. Figures from Eurostat show that unemployment in all the Nordic countries is well below the European Union average. In Denmark the seasonally adjusted jobless rate of around 2% is the lowest since the early 1970s. In Norway unemployment is also just over 2% (see chart).

With economies throughout the region expected to slow soon, low unemployment is not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, employers across the Nordic region are complaining of labour shortages and fretting about wage inflation and reduced export competitiveness.

The Swedish response has been the most radical: a proposal that will virtually guarantee entry to any non-EU worker with a job offer from a Swedish employer. Residence and employment permits, initially valid for two years, can be extended for an extra two, with the possibility of permanent status afterwards. The labour minister, Tobias Billstrom, says foreign workers are needed to counter a greying population and shrinking labour force. We've had a one-track immigration policy. The only way to get into Sweden since the 1970s has been as an asylum seeker, he notes. Norway has also simplified the rules. Previously, foreign workers faced weeks of waiting to have their papers processed. Now they can start work as soon as they have lodged their properly filled out applications.

Yet opening doors and cutting paperwork might not be enough. All Nordic countries have a big problem attracting and retaining the most skilled foreign workers. Some 120,000 foreigners have jobs in Norway, for example, but only a small minority are highly skilled. The directorate of immigration can let in 5,000 highly skilled workers from outside the EU every year, but the annual quota has never been filled. The Danes, too, have difficulties attracting skilled workers. Denmark's new plan to introduce a points-based green-card scheme might woo some engineers and IT wizards, but will it induce them to stay? New figures from the Danish Economic Council, a government-sponsored think-tank, show that 20% of foreign workers leave within a year, and 40% go within two years.

Observers' explanations for this range from the prosaic (dismal weather, difficult languages) to the political (perceptions of hostility to foreigners). But it adds up to the same conclusion: enticing skilled foreigners to the Nordics is a tough job.