International students on the labour market

– on or off course?

From time to time, newspaper articles and news items talk about unemployment among immigrants, women in particular, and a simultaneous shortage in the workforce (Yle, 8 March 2022 and HS, 8 November 2021). Social service and healthcare professionals are particularly scarce (see Yle, 27 September 2021). Every year, some 100 international students complete a master’s degree at the University of Eastern Finland. Half of them have a master’s degree in natural sciences. Do graduates and the labour market match? How do they match?

Women overtook men in five years

I examined the employment situation of international students graduating from the University of Eastern Finland using two different surveys: an employment survey (roughly a year after graduation) and a career monitoring survey (five years after graduation). The employment survey had 149, and the career monitoring survey 121, graduate respondents. 

The employment situation was better among the respondents who had graduated five years ago (85%) than among those who had graduated a year ago (71%). Compared with native Finns, the employment rate was a few percentage points lower: the employment rate of native Finns was 74% a year after graduation and 90% five years after graduation. Gender had an impact on employment. The employment rate a year after graduation was 63% among women and 79% among men, whereas the situation was much better for women five years after graduation, with 87% of women and 83% of men being employed. 

What helps in finding a job? Certainly not Finnish skills! Surprisingly, more of the respondents living in Finland found English more important than Finnish. Apparently, many had already found a job in which Finnish skills or their lack was no obstacle. However, the responses indicated that for people living in Finland in particular, networks and social contacts offered important routes for finding information about jobs.

The private sector is the largest employer for recent graduates living in Finland – universities for graduates living abroad

The majority of the respondents had found a job at a university or in the private sector. Of all recent graduates, those living in Finland often landed a job in the private sector, while those living abroad were mainly employed by universities. Five years after graduation, the situation was almost the reverse: the majority of those living in Finland were employed by universities, while the number of those living abroad working at universities or in the private sector was roughly the same. Nearly everyone employed by universities was engaged in research. In the private sector, jobs often involved specialist positions or customer service activities. A university degree was more often a requirement for recent graduates living abroad (67%) than for those living in Finland (35%). Five years after graduation, there were no longer any differences based on the country of residence: nearly 60% of those living in Finland or abroad considered their job to match the level of their degree.

What should we think about this?

International students do surprisingly well on the labour market given that few graduate in sectors suffering from a workforce shortage, and that they cannot seek a job in the public sector due to language and competence requirements. I was expecting the private sector to be a larger employer than universities in other countries, but the situation was precisely the opposite. This may mean that at least some of our international students are already seeking a career in research when starting their studies – this only takes more time in Finland.  After all, the majority of the respondents were satisfied with their degree and felt that employers appreciated it. Overall, graduates living abroad were more satisfied with their degree and career than those living in Finland, which may mean that their access to the labour market had proceeded as planned. 

This blog text is based on my report “International students in the labour market: graduates from the University of Eastern Finland and their employment situation summary of 2016–2020.

Outi Suorsa


University of Eastern Finland