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Q&A Week 45

Diversity Doers: How one company responded to the 2015 refugee crisis in treating it as a hiring opportunity

Amir Nazari talks about how hiring refugees with engineering backgrounds has helped solve his company's recruiting problem, as well as changed the lives of hundreds of refugees and their families.

In 2015 Europe was hit by a refugee crisis. A total of 1.3 million migrants sought asylum in different European countries, most of them coming from war-struck Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Sweden, then with a population of 9.7 million, received over 162 000 refugees that year. 

Amir Nazari works at the engineering, design and advisory company AFRY in Sweden, and has had a key role in shaping how corporations have responded to the crisis. We spoke with Amir about his experiences.

JL: Amir, what is your background, and how did you come to work with diversity and inclusion?

AN: Actually I am an engineer, a chemistry engineer. So I do not have a background in HR. I myself came to Sweden as a refugee from Iran in 1986, during the war between Iran and Iraq. It was a long time ago, but the situation was the same as in Syria in 2015. Having experienced it myself, I knew what it is to be an academically educated engineer and a refugee, in a new country. So I suggested starting this project called the New Immigrated Engineers. Today I work as diversity manager at AFRY and lead the project.

JL: What is the objective with the project?

AN: The background for this project is the huge lack of educated engineers in Sweden. Especially in big cities we do not have the competencies we need. At the moment we lack 25 000 engineers on the labor market, and the situation is only getting worse.

So the aim of our project was to hire the academically educated engineers that arrived in Sweden. We estimated that 25% of those arriving were academically educated. Four to five thousand of them were engineers. So our ambition, backed by our company board, was to create a project to attract and hire these people.

JL: How did it go? And what were your expectations for the project back in 2015?

AN: This was a totally new project. Our company wasn’t the only one to think of it, but there wasn’t anyone before us. So no one knew what to expect, or how it would work. There also weren’t many resources in place, in terms of routines, processes or even personnel. So in the beginning our CEO said he would be satisfied if we just hired two to three engineers in the first year.

The beginning was really difficult. Our managers weren’t ready to give a chance to new immigrants. They were suspicious and didn’t believe immigrants would have the right education or the needed language skills. It was also a challenge to identify the best candidates. For the project to succeed, finding the right candidates is absolutely crucial.

JL: How does the program work, once you have identified the suitable candidates?

AN: The first step is a trainee program that lasts three months. During this time we give them the opportunities to learn as much as possible about the job, and to improve their language skills. Most of our new colleagues have managed to learn Swedish, not perfectly of course, but enough to be able to communicate. Our aim really is to be able to hire them after the program. So when we take trainees, it is not just to offer them a trainee program, but to hire them. So we look for very strong candidates, dedicated individuals who are ready to work hard in the beginning. Because they are under a lot of pressure to start with.

JL: Now looking back, how have you succeeded? And what has been the most important factor in paving your way?

AN: During the four years we have worked with this project we have offered employment to 234 persons out of 240 participants. So we have a very high success rate.

In my opinion the most important thing is to find the right candidates. We do have an impact on people’s futures in this country, but it cannot be our driving force. We cannot be here just to help newly arrived immigrants; we are here to do business. If business wouldn’t be at the center, there would be a risk that we would take all the candidates into the program. We would be taking people who wouldn’t be the right persons to work here. And that would lead managers to lose interest, which we cannot afford. Managers’ support for the program is also a key factor for our success. 

JL: What do you think about the images of recently arrived refugees in the media and in public discussions? Do they match your experiences?

AN: Absolutely not. Because the refugees and recently arrived immigrants I meet are successful, they have a lot of experience and also international experience. They are very dedicated and very highly competent. So they are very different from media images as in the media refugees mainly are described as a cost for society.

JL: What are you most happy about with this project?

AN: The most important achievement for me is that we have changed the image of the refugee. The attitude among our managers is totally different compared to when we started. Also, without this project we wouldn’t have employed the same amount of immigrated engineers. Maybe five or ten of our colleagues would have been hired without the program. So we are changing the future of hundreds of individuals in this country, the futures of numerous families.

I also think that we have had an impact on other companies. Our organization is the only one to have full-time employees working with a project like this, but we have opened the door to other companies to get interested. We have shown them what a pool of resources refugees are.

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