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Finland works to retain its international talent

The Finnish Government would like to see at least 75 per cent of foreign students in Finland to stay for work after graduation.

Eeva Anundi / Business Finland

Finding meaningful employment in a foreign country can be a daunting task for anyone. We take a look at the numerous services available in Finland for international talent looking to climb the career ladder or pursue entrepreneurship.

The benefits of attracting international talent to a country are well documented. But just as crucial is retaining the international talent already residing in the country due to career changes, studies or a myriad of other reasons.

“There are currently 10 000 un- or underemployed highly educated foreigners in the Greater Helsinki region alone,” says Jessi Christian, head of marketing at The Shortcut, a Helsinki-based non-profit supporting international talent in professional integration. “We believe that the professional integration of foreigners is a game-changer for making Finland globally competitive.” 

It’s an easy comment to echo, and Finnish businesses are already increasingly open to hiring foreign talent. Still, there is always room for improvement, and a wide range of organisations across the country are focusing on exactly that: helping international talent to stay in Finland and find meaningful employment and career development.

Stepping on the career ladder

Students represent a vast talent pool in every country. Currently, over 20 000 international students are studying in Finnish higher education institutions. Furthermore, the Finnish Government has set out a goal to triple the number of new foreign students to 15 000 students a year, with the aim that 75 per cent of them stay in Finland for work after graduation. 

The Shortcut Spark Academy is a free entrepreneurship programme targeted at women and non-binary people. Image: Jirina

Steps are already being taken to achieve this. A recent law change eases international students’ residence permit process and allows them to get permanent residence faster. At the same time, most Finnish universities and education institutions already offer career development programmes and services targeted at their international students. 

One example is Aalto University’s International Talent Programme, which brings together students and potential employers in various mentoring sessions. The programme has already collaborated with several Finnish industry giants, such as Fiskars, F-SecureKone, Nokia and Wärtsilä

In Vaasa, Western Finland, several higher education institutions collaborate on the Vaasa International Talents programme. In nearby Turku, Åbo Akademi University offers one-to-one mentoring for international students as part of its CareerContact programme. These programmes aim to help international students learn more about Finnish working life and connect them with international and national experts. A key factor is a close collaboration with the education institutions and the private sector. 

“Every fifth citizen [in Turku] is a higher education student,” says Lotta Kujanpää, a specialist at Talent Turku. “In addition to the career services of two universities and four universities of applied sciences, International House Turku brings together counselling and guidance services promoting and supporting the integration of immigrants and international newcomers in Turku.”

There is a growing number of career services tailored to the spouses and families of international talent relocating to Finland. Image: Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

Changing careers

But international talent exists also outside academia. The reasons for immigrating to a country are wide and varied, and sometimes it isn’t a question of choice. One often underserved group in terms of employment services are refugees. This is precisely the challenge Startup Refugees was born to tackle in 2015. It is a social initiative focused on the fast integration of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants into the Finnish labour market.

“We have employed over 1 300 newcomers, offered more than 9 000 skills development and education opportunities and more than 440 newcomers have participated in our entrepreneurship courses,” tells Anni Lehtonen, communications and brand manager at Startup Refugees. “In our opinion, work is the best way to integrate into a new environment and learn the language and culture. The current integration system in Finland still focuses too much on language learning.”

Zaid Usta, originally from Iraq and now a master’s degree student at Tampere University and one of Startup Refugees’ community leaders, has experienced first-hand the need for these types of services.

“I came to Finland with my family in 2015 as an asylum seeker […] As a highly educated person of foreign background, I participated in integration programmes dedicated to highly educated immigrants and foreigners living in Finland,” Usta says. “Startup Refugees’ programmes are very important because they address the lack of understanding between Finnish society and the multiple cultures of people living in Finland as refugees and immigrants.” 

Integrify, founded in 2016, was similarly set up to help train asylum seekers, but with a focus on programming. Its pilot programmes saw all its participants find a job as a software developer in Finland. Today Integrify operates across Europe and has opened applications to anyone wanting to become an IT developer.

”The inclusiveness of Startup Refugees’ programmes and activities represent a great opportunity to engage more people in the working environment in Finland and eliminate the marginalisation of immigrant communities,” says Zaid Usta. Image: Julius Töyrylä

Then there are services provided by the public sector. Most of the major cities in Finland have their own Talent House or International House, which act as a single service point supporting internationals living in the city. For example, International House Tampere offers services related to studying and working in the city, and contacts to local employers. 

Going for entrepreneurship

Not everyone is looking to find a job but instead hope to establish their own company. While the Finnish startup ecosystem is a significant employer for international talent, it also offers plenty of support for those looking to do just that. One important hub for such is Maria 01,a Helsinki-based startup campus where many organisations supporting international talent reside. 

“We have over 65 different nationalities working from the Maria 01 campus, and it’s a richness we’re grateful for. We’re surrounded by different cultures, ways of thinking and working,” says Hanna Nylund, the campus’ head of marketing and communications. “We’re happy to have organisations within the community that organise different training, programmes and matchmaking opportunities to connect international talent with local entities, and help them to find jobs or set up their own companies.”

Among these organisations is The Shortcut. Since 2016, it has helped over 300 people find employment and supported almost 90 entrepreneurs in starting their businesses. In early 2022, The Shortcut launched Spark Academy, a free entrepreneurship programme targeted at women and non-binary people. 

“Especially for female international talent, it is hard to start your own company or join a startup due to a lack of network, female role models and mentors, as well as language and knowledge barriers,” explains Jessi Christian. 

Alejandra Cobos is one of the new entrepreneurs at Spark Academy. Originally from Honduras, Cobos moved to Finland for an internship in a large Finnish company organised through her university in Italy. However, she feels the lack of a degree from a Finnish university and Finnish language skills still cause significant challenges for foreigners looking to start a career. For Cobos, the answer was entrepreneurship. 

“I signed up to volunteer at Slush without knowing the size of the event. Once there I realised how big and international the Finnish startup ecosystem is and that it is where I want to be,” Cobos explains. “There are many active programmes and events [around startups], and I thought if I want to try starting a company it would need to be Finland. When I started and got my foot in the ecosystem, I saw many young people, women and foreigners, which made me feel I could do it as well.”

Alejandra Cobos says the Finnish startup ecosystem is very open and international. Image: Alejandra Cobos

Cobos participated in Spark Academy’s month-long entrepreneurship module and says it helped her to find the confidence to start her own company, MindMatters. 

“I wanted to start working on my company idea, but it felt like a huge jump to start a company when I don’t have huge networks here. [Spark] was the last push to convince me I can do this, even though I’m not Finnish and I’m a woman.”

Finding the hidden gems

There is one group of international professionals that often gets overlooked. Many international talents relocate to Finland with their partners who are also looking to build their careers here. This is the untapped talent that initiatives such as Hidden Gems in Tampere is hoping to reach. 

Hidden Gems was launched in 2018 initially to support the spouses of international researchers at the University of Tampere. A year later, its activities were opened also to the private sector. These activities include networking, mentoring and professional development services. In 2022, the focus will be on peer support groups.

“When relocating, spouses are often falling off the radar of organisational support, while they need the most career care,” says Raisa Suominen, senior specialist of HR services at Tampere University. “The Hidden Gems team aims to ensure that the spouses are able to build a social network, improve language skills and establish a social identity in Finland. We’ve helped more than 125 international spouses so far.”

But no matter who these services and programmes target, their underlying message is the same: navigating employment and career opportunities in a foreign country can be daunting, and a wide range of easily accessible services is needed to support these efforts. In the end, everyone wins:

“Diversity plays out for everyone and can be a game-changer for Finnish growth,” says Christian. “Statistics show that ethnically and gender-diverse companies outperform less diverse companies in profitability.”

Originally published in June 2022

By: Eeva Haaramo