18 March 2011

So, you want to work in Iceland?

Ever since about a year into this blog, I've been getting emails from people asking me about ways to move here. They stopped abruptly at the beginning of October 2008 but always reappear in a spike during the first few months of the new year. I can't quite figure why, given how idle this blog is, but since it doesn't seem to be disappearing, this post is for all of you frustrated would-be expats. I've found that I am answering the same questions over and over again, which means it's time to make it into a post. I should preface this by saying that when I moved to Iceland it was when the banks were all hiring aggressively and when the general unemployment was extremely low. The current situation is very different. The jobless Icelanders and EU residents I know here are having trouble making ends meet, and most of the expats that made up the vibrant community that made the mood her festive are mostly gone. Every month a new friend shares the news of his or her departure, and now even the half-Icelandic couples are beginning to leave.

With that said, if you're still gung-ho about moving here, this is the advice and information I can offer. Keep in mind that this is based on my own experience moving here several years ago. Since then the visa situation has changed quite a bit, and the job market has changed even more so.

First of all, if you're coming from the US or some other non-EEA country, as most of my would-be Iceland residents seem to be, you'll need residence/work permits. As with most countries, this means you either need to be a student (with a verified income source), in a relationship with an Icelander, or with a job here. I'm going to address the third category mostly, since that's what I did and what most people ask me about. These visas are easy enough to get if you have a willing sponsor, although the lay of the land is a bit different now than it was when I arrived some years ago. They used to be free, now are not, they used to be one-size-fits-all but now are divided between skilled and unskilled types. Of course, there's the issue of the kreppa which has the employment situation for everyone here in a bit of a question. I keep hearing about all the foreigners leaving, that the hiring fairs for jobs in other countries are jammed, that everyone's running for the ferries to Europe. I know some of these people personally, who've found jobs and are packing their things up as I type.

That said, there still has to be space for foreign workers, particularly ones who are handy writing in English. Given that the consumer base within Iceland is so shaky, the companies that want to stay afloat are searching for business in foreign parts if they can. If you're looking for jobs in construction, I recommend looking elsewhere, since the Icelandic construction companies are even sending their people abroad, mostly to Norway.

How to find that job is a bit of the tricky thing. The best way, given the scale of this society and how much it thrives on those personal relationships, is to actually be here in Iceland. Americans can stay as a tourist for up to three months in the Schengen territory, which would definitely give you enough time to build contacts. Although there is a Craigslist Reykjavik, nobody uses it, so finding those job leads when you're not here will probably be best attained through a website. I'm a bit rusty on the search methods lately but in my day I found a lot of information on mbl.is, in the "atvinna" section, as well as the available government jobs at this site. It's a good way to start learning some of the words in the language anyway. Now that there's google translate and plenty of handy apps to deal with this, it's much easier than it was when I was searching.

There are a few English postings on the Reykjavík Grapevine's website, but none of these are hte kinds of jobs that are likely to sponsor a visa for a non-EU/EEA employee, and then there's a nice comprehensive English-language list of companies operating in Iceland at this chamber of commerce website. I used this as a base list to look at which companies had English-language websites and would therefore be amenable to the idea of having a non-Icelandic employee. From there I actually walked into quite a few companies, introduced myself, and said I was looking for work. Although none of those panned out, I only had one experience where I wasn't welcomed and at least offered coffee and a tour. Company bureaucracy is very minor here, so it's frequently possible to talk to the main decision makers in such an informal fashion.

Should your job hunting meet with success, the next step would be to get that paperwork squared away. It's all explained on the immigration office's website, and my experience was that the Icelandic HR people (if you are lucky enough to work for a company that has one) have little to no experience filling the papers out, so it's best if you're willing and able to do it yourself. I recommend reading through before you try to move and get those bits of paper together that you need from your home country, such as the criminal record. Makes it that much easier when application time arrives.

If you're interested in starting language studies before you arrive, the online Icelandic course offered by the University of Iceland was a great start for me. I used it once a week for a few minutes and found that I'd learned enough to skip the intro level classes once I got here. It helps to get accustomed to the sounds of the language so you're at least familiar with pre-aspiration and the staccato rhythm of Icelandic before you arrive.

One thing I am also often asked in these emails I get is, "how difficult is it to move to Iceland? Is the winter hard?" I can't tell you that. Difficult depends on you and your concept of what is complicated. The winter's harshness depends on you too, as does your interest and ability to deal with what is definitely an island lifestyle. I still always advise coming to visit Iceland for more than a whirlwind summer tour. Come in the winter if you can and see if you still like it in the dark, in the snowsqualls, when you're stuck in Reykjavik and can't see beyond the end of your nose.

The other thing to consider is that if you're not marrying an Icelander or with an Icelandic significant other, this is a complicated place to be long-term. It's extremely family oriented, so every holiday will find you smooshing your way into a local family, cobbling together your own expat mixture, or fleeing the island. With that said, the Icelanders I have become friends with are wonderful, vibrant, interesting, intelligent and well-traveled people, and the non-Icelanders I've met are a great mix too. It's an interesting place to live and I don't regret having come here at all. It's just not for everyone.