”See the person behind the papers” – International talent’s experiences of Finnish working life and how to develop it

We have recently interviewed several dozens of international talents in the HIWE project. In the interviews, we have asked about their lives before coming to Finland, their experiences while in Finland, and their hopes and plans for the future. Our special interest has been in internationals’ experiences of employment, working life and entrepreneurship in Finland.

We are currently analysing the interview data, and the first results have already been obtained. We regularly write about the results both in scientific publications and in this blog.

In this article, we briefly present the thoughts and experiences of international talents about Finnish working life and their ideas for developing it. The article is based on 46 interviews with internationals representing various geographical and cultural backgrounds and working in three fields: health and pharmacy, international business and retailing, and tourism and hospitality. The quoted interviewees have been given pseudonyms.

These results were first presented in the 2023 Annual Conference of Finnish Sociologists in Tampere, March 23-24.

The balance of Finnish working life is praised

Let us start with positive news about how international talent experience the Finnish working life. First of all, nearly all interviewees say good things about the work-life balance they have encountered while working in Finland. Their experience is that employers in Finland understand that there is more to life than work, and employees’ well-being is taken rather good care of. According to many interviewees, the difference in this respect is considerable compared to many other countries. For example, the American work culture is considered really intensive, which leaves little or no time for family and other life outside of work.

The interviewees brought out many other positive aspects of Finnish working life. For example, they appreciate it when working communities are international-minded, where the working language is English but where you can also practice Finnish in various social situations.

There are also good opportunities to further your education in Finland, including changing professions if one is interested in that option. Chances for getting employed through entrepreneurship were also commended. Setting up a company in Finland is easy, and you can get financial and other support for it from society. On the other hand, bureaucracy related to the Finnish language was mentioned as a challenge in running companies.

”For us it was a very easy process to set up a company and also there is a lot of support for companies in Finland if you know where to find it.” – Martin

But how to find a job in Finland in the first place? Many problems hamper internationals’ possibilities to be get employed

In the interviews, many barriers to employment and problems with Finnish working life also emerged. One of the most frequently mentioned challenges concerned how the skills and previous experience of international talents are often doubted in the Finnish labor market. Although there is a lot of public talk about the need to increase work-based immigration, as has been highlighted in this blog too, skilled workers face suspicion and discrimination.

I know there are many good foreign immigrants who have a good capability, international knowledge, who are struggling to find a job. And I just want to Finnish companies or other people to realize that they’re losing a good resource. And Finland should stand for other international country.” – Ken

Some interviewees used the term ’tribal culture’ in connection with this, pointing out for example that even though job advertisements look for employees with international experience, the employer may still demand excellent Finnish from the applicants and ultimately prefer native Finns in the recruitment process. In the interviews, questions and requirements related to Finnish language skills in overall were considered challenging from the point of view of international talents.

On the other hand, the interviewees were divided in their views on whether they consider it important to learn Finnish or not. Some thought it necessary for social integration and career advancement, in addition to knowledge of Finnish being a must for some job descriptions. Others felt that knowing Finnish is not a necessity, especially when working in international companies and living in the capital region.

Many interviewees also wondered why so-called hidden jobs are emphasised in Finland, or why it is said that the best way to find a job is to know how to network ’right’ and with the right people. The interviewees did not understand this, and in general, many have had difficulty finding work for themselves even in the current labor market situation, especially work corresponding to their own skills.

Some of the interviewees also felt that they had not received the kind of help from TE-services to find employment that they expected. They have felt that the TE-staff do not properly understand the situations of internationals and the special issues related to their employment.

The interviewees also talked about unfriendly and sometimes unprofessional recruitment practices, which according to them differ from those of many other countries. Deficiencies were also seen in the ability and willingness of the recruiters and employers to ”see the person behind the papers”.

”[Trying to make Finnish connections] wasn’t very successful. It led to some interesting conversations here and there, but usually when you reach out to someone you don’t even get an answer. Which is still the case nowadays. I don’t really know how networking works like in Finland.” – Pieter

Problems can be remedied – ideas for change

In the interviews, many ideas were presented on how the Finnish working life can be developed both structurally and in terms of working life practices.

Some of the most important structural change needs are streamlining the acceptance of degrees completed outside of Finland, better recognition of existing skills and prior experience, and speeding up employment with better employment services. Regarding the healthcare sector, the need to speed up Valvira’s approval processes was also brought up.

Many of the development proposals were related to language skills requirements. Instead of native-level language skills, it was suggested that fluent or sufficient Finnish should be enough, and that the language could be studied more effectively while at the job. In addition, more information and communication in English was hoped for from the authorities. For example, it is especially important for non-Finnish speaking entrepreneurs to be able to understand the taxman’s instructions and decisions. Having them in English would be a big help.

“Well first of all stop asking native Finnish, it’s fluent Finnish that you should want. Be it that this is actually required for the job.” – Emilie

In terms of working life practices, the interviewees hoped that Finnish employers would be bolder in their internationalisation strategies and in recruitment of international talent. Advice and training for this are available via many service providers if employers are interested in receiving it.

Many of the interviewees also emphasised that integration into workplace is a two-way street, where both parties, employers and newcomers, should understand each other better. Many felt that they needed more help to adapt than they actually received. On the other hand, many have been the first international in their workplace, and they have then contributed to the subsequent internationalisation of their working environment.

All the foreign talent is sort of put in the same bag. And that makes it so that you are not properly training, helping with the adapting process, either of all of them because you are treating all of them the same, so to say.” – Emiliano

Things are changing rapidly

Although our interviewees talked about many problems related to employment in Finland, they also pointed out that the Finnish working life has in recent years internationalised quickly. For example, employers’ experience with international recruitment has increased, English has been adapted as the working language in many places, and work-related information is more available in English.

Many interviewees felt that social life at workplaces is also becoming more open. This would seem to be most of all a generational issue. Young employees from different backgrounds, both Finns and others, are more culturally sensitive and are currently changing the practices of social interaction.

Authors: Tiina Rättilä, Piritta Parkkari, Tuuli Pulkkinen and Tero Montonen. The authors work as researchers at the University of Eastern Finland.