Unpacking ways to make the most of expat-ness in Denmark: an un-conference

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open groupLast Thursday, I attended an un-conference near Århus. That’s right – not a conference, but an un-conference. When I first heard about the event during the initial planning stage last autumn, I thought it sounded interesting but was unsure what it meant. I am a member of a group of expats in Århus called The Bridge Project and a couple of the founders of the group, Tom Griffiths and Gabriela Rosschou, along with Lone Aagaard, Director of Kommitment.dk, had come up with the idea of holding an event at which expats and Danes could come together to talk about the problems we, as expats, face in entering the Danish labour market. So far so good. But rather than proposing to invite several experts to speak at audience members, which is the customary conference format, they thought the event should center instead on discussions and conversations that made use of the expertise all the participants possess.

I arrived in Lystrup at 9am. The event took place on the top floor of Kristinelund, which is a modern, hyggelig locale housing the offices of many small companies, and the voices of those already present echoed through the foyer as I climbed the stairs. Most attendees (we numbered over 50) were already chatting over cups of coffee and I quickly joined the crowd. Shortly thereafter we were beckoned into the main event space, where many small tables were set up. Introductions were made and the host and primary facilitator, Jan Hein Nielsen, explained the format and structure of the day. His main message was that this was our day and we would get ascool drawing much out of it as we put into it. He explained that we would discuss various topics that spoke to the event’s main question – What do we need to do to eliminate the under-utilization and waste of international talent, and address the blind spots present in Danish culture? – in both small groups and large, as well as in pairs, throughout the day. Then, instead of asking each person to stand up and introduce themselves (as is often the case at an event where not all participants know each other) he asked us to stand in a circle and proceeded to group us according to different parameters, including whether we were an expat or represented a company, NGO, or government; which country we were from; and what motivated us to attend the event. That got the blood – and laughter – flowing.

True to his word, we spent the rest of the day exploring answers to questions in groups of 2, 4, and more. I discussed with a partner positive experiences we had each had with diversity and then what we thought we could do to enable collaboration between expats and the private/public sectors. We brainstormed such ideas as asking Danish unions for more international networking events; companies holding open house days for loneinternationals, inviting them to see the company and meet current employees; and the creation of volunteer opportunities in municipal and regional government offices that could benefit from different perspectives. In groups of four we debated the challenges and opportunities for success in the Danish labor market. Our group came up with the language barrier and Danish companies being risk-averse as challenges; opportunities included workshopinternational experience as a strength and events such as the one we were attending. After lunch the focus shifted to exploring a way forward by brainstorming ways to address the question “What can you do to engage in the collaboration between expats and public/private sectors in Denmark?” The emphasis in the afternoon was coming up with proactive ways to improve our situation as expats and co-create solutions with Danes. We were encouraged to offer ‘workshops’ on topics that interested us or join those proposed by others. Workshop themes included Introducing new expats to jobs with integration support (points discussed included the fact that many SMEs do not have the HR capacity to provide integration support but some do go the extra mile, and emphasis on the fact that solutions have to be co-created by Danes and expats), How to brand yourself (expats should not bury the fact that they have an international background near the bottom of their resume; intercultural background should be considered an asset; expats should advertise themselves as ‘the’ expert rather than ‘a’ expert; and we should be visible on and in many platforms) and Helping municipalities support and integrate expats into the labour market (we should approach municipalities and offer our unique experience as expats, especially to offices where integration expertise is needed), among others. Many participants moved from workshop to workshop, sharing ideas and picking up others. The energy in the room was palpable as we discussed, debated and learned from one another. After a brief plenary session following the workshops, Lone Aagaard gave closing remarks and the event ended.

I am really glad I attended. One thing that has become clear to me as an expat in Aalborg who is seeking employment – there is not much of a support network for the expats up here who would like to work but cannot find a job. There is a lot more taking place for and among the expat community in Århus. I fully agree with the idea that I/we need to be proactive and seek help and opportunities, network, and do all I/we possibly can to move from unemployed status to employed. This is part of the reason I have moved beyond the borders of Nordjylland and started to build connections an hour south. The un-conference gave me the opportunity not only to meet people in my situation, but those who can and want to help. The format of the event worked beautifully, in my opinion. I cannot imagine I would have learned as much listening to people tell me what I already know: that it is generally difficult to enter the Danish labor market, that I need to study Danish, that I need to network, etc. Instead, by taking all of those as given (though we did re-visit these ideas throughout the day) and exploring with others – both expats and Danes – how to move beyond the challenges, I came away inspired and motivated to take the next steps to successfully enter the Danish labor market.

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