We have only been talking for 10 minutes, but my notes already fill up the whole page. A total of ten years of work experience in the forest industry in three different countries, five of which in managerial duties; a master’s degree in environmental sciences that will soon be completed within the target time; extensive minor studies in social sciences, another degree in business; written and oral skills in six languages, three of which are excellent, two are good and one is at a basic level.
This in addition to volunteering, working as a research assistant, extensive IT skills and experience with teaching. Excitement and motivation for working in one’s own field exude from every word.
I’m stunned and breathless, once again. How can a person of this age have such an enormous amount of expertise and experience, such an amazing story to tell?
But this is not a job interview, it’s a career guidance discussion. The student feels like he’s reached a dead end because he can’t find work in his own field, even though for him, “his own field is a pretty wide-ranging idea, after all.”
Is Finnish still necessary?
For this student, the reason is clear: Finnish is his only weak language. No matter what the CV says, the job-hunting process stalls every time due to the same problem.
The idea of moving away after his studies is dispiriting to the student, but it’s starting to look like the only option.
No wonder. In 2019, Taina Susiluoto, Director of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) estimated in an interview by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE that up to two thirds of international higher education institution students leave Finland after completing their studies.
The situation is somewhat perverse. As the population structure changes, we need work-based immigration if our Nordic welfare society is to survive at all. At the same time, competent and motivated people who move here can’t find a job because – to quote Seppo Räty, an Olympic medallist in the javelin throw – you have to speak Finnish. Immediately.
When you think of education as an investment, this is an enormous loss for Finnish society.
This is also making me depressed. I wish I could change the world so that the student wouldn’t have to sit here. But a career counsellor’s abilities don’t stretch that far.
You, the recruiter, hold that power in your hands.
Wanted: someone who fits in the corporate culture
The recruiting media Duunitori conducts an annual national recruitment survey; among other things, it asks recruiters about the factors that influence the recruitment decision (survey in Finnish).
Based on the list, age, nationality and gender have the least effect on the decisions.
However, the publication ‘An Equal Finland’ by the Ministry of Justice shows a different kind of picture of the Finnish working life. According to the report, it ”appears to be rigid: only the competence produced by the Finnish system and employees with a completely Finnish background with perfect Finnish language skills are valued. A new kind of job seeker appears as a risk. […] The public discourse claims that international experts are wanted in Finland, but at the same time the skills and potential of people with a foreign background who already live in the country remain unutilised. People with an immigrant background themselves have already lost their faith in finding a job that matches their education” (p. 49, publication in Finnish).
So where does the difference between the views of recruiters and jobseekers come from?
One potential answer can be found at the other end of Duunitori’s list. The top two remain the same each year:
- Motivation for the job;
- Suitability of the applicant for the corporate culture.
If you asked me directly if the applicant’s nationality or ethnic background affect the recruitment decision, I as a recruiter would definitely also say that of course it doesn’t have any effect.
However, the way each of us consciously or unconsciously defines who fits in our work community and culture is something different altogether.
I talk a lot about this second item on the list with students during lectures and workshops about finding a job. Look for inside information, learn to know the people in advance, make a note of the code of behaviour, practice putting your expertise in words, look for and define the needs you specifically can fulfil.
However, finding employment is not just about skills and strategy. For many people, it’s linked to a lot of things they can’t personally influence in any way. Simply having a name that hints at a non-Finnish background may affect getting a job interview. According to the EU, it is especially difficult for first- and second-generation immigrants with an African background to find work that matches their education in the EU Member States.
Luckily, anonymous recruitment practices are becoming more common. But not even they can help if the corporate cultures do not change.
Familiarity at the cost of diversity?
Now, it is important to understand that I’m not calling anybody a racist. I can’t believe that Finnish recruiters would refuse to pick applicants who can’t speak Finnish or otherwise don’t appear Finnish just because they’re mean.
One of the essential principles of anti-racism is the idea that people aren’t divided into racists and non-racists, the good guys and the bad guys. Instead, people’s actions can reproduce or dismantle racism.
All of us white people who have grown up in Finland most definitely have racist thought patterns and operating methods, a lot of which are part and parcel of the fact that for us, being white and speaking Finnish is normal, easy and safe.
Could the linguistic and cultural block in recruitment be due, at least partially, to a slight preference for the safe and familiar, even if it is an unconscious one?
Diversity is strength
Nonetheless, the diversity of the work community could be a benefit in itself. The report for the ‘Moninaisesti parempi’ (Manifold More) project refers to studies, according to which diversity improves factors such as innovation in the organisation, reaching new customer groups and financial profitability.
In the recruitment experiment in the project, the following things, among others, were found to be good tools for promoting more diverse recruitment: investing in recruitment communication, an anonymous demonstration of skill and, oh yes, a critical assessment of the Finnish language skills required for the role.
Among other materials, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has also produced a list of ten practical measures that can be used to promote the diversity of the work community in recruitment.
In fact, I challenge you, the recruiter, and your work community to think about who is suitable for your corporate culture and why:
- Do we hire people who are like us and can speak Finnish because it’s absolutely necessary, because it is simply not possible to use any other language than Finnish at the workplace or in the customer interface, or because people are used to it?
- Or because the change would require extra effort during the transition phase?
Or in reverse:
- How many top applicants do not bother to apply, because they have learned from experience that it’s not even worth trying? How do you get them back?
- What kind of expertise, experience, perspectives and language skills could you get for the team, if you’d examine the “suitability for the corporate culture” from a critical viewpoint, consciously expanding the definition?
My sofa is a good place to talk about how to fix the world, but just talking isn’t enough to make the change happen. That’s your job.
Career Counsellor, University of Helsinki