Why does Finland seek talent from abroad, but neglect highly skilled foreigners in the country?

In this text, we challenge Finland’s urge to “attract international talent” while neglecting existing international talent in the country. We argue that these policies ignore the highly educated foreigners and migrants whose talent is wasted in under-employment and unemployment. Scrutinising the barriers to foreigners for adequate employment allows us to grasp the various structural factors that shape precarity among highly skilled foreigners in Finland. By Jawaria Khan, Olivia Maury, Quivine Ndomo. Illustrative Photo: Hennie Stander on Unsplash.

In 2020, Finland launched the 90-day Finn programme, upping its game in the high-stake global skill and talent attraction competition. In 2021, the initiative brought 15 IT experts, entrepreneurs, and investors – largely from Silicon Valley and other similar places around the world – to Finland. The programme facilitated migration for the participants to motivate sceptics to take a chance on Finland as their next work and family life destination.

The ’90 day Finn’ initiative is part of the Finnish government’s Talent Boost programme, which aims to “attract and retain international talent” and to meet the country’s apparent skill and labour demand. The Talent Boost Cookbook Finland 2.0 states that “since sufficient skilled labour is not available in Finland to cover the demand, international talent is a needed solution” (p. 6). The specific “target markets” for attracting talent has been Russia, India and South Korea.

Problematically, however, there are heaps of skilled and highly educated people of foreign background who are underemployed or unemployed in Finland. The unemployment rate of the foreign-born population (19.4%) was two times higher than that of natives in 2018; but mounted to 28.8 % among African migrants. Moreover, when employed, the employment tends to be incompatible with the migrants’ and foreign-born people’s qualifications. This paradox lead us to ask; what is the reason for ‘attracting’ more talent from abroad when Finland wastes so much talent?

Below we identify and discuss five structural factors that shape precarity among high-skilled foreigners in Finland.

  1. Segmented and differentiated labour markets

The labour market in Finland is highly segmented, which means that migrants in general, but in particular from outside the EU, tend to find paid work in the low-paid service sector. For example, many highly educated migrants do unpaid internships or work for a poor wage in their field of interest just to get work experience. Moreover, limited understanding of the job market ‘allows’ for exploitation of highly skilled labour. In terms of income, there is a gap between Finnish and foreign citizens with a higher education degree: foreign graduates earn between 7,000 (Applied Sciences degree) to 10,000 € (University Master’s degree) less a year than a Finnish graduate. Against this backdrop the talent attraction project looks bizarre.

2. The strict residence permit system

Policy programmes to attract foreign talent barely tackle the socio-legal barriers for non-EU/EEA migrants in Finland to enter the labour market. For example, migrant students with residence permits must demonstrate funds of at least 6,720€ for a one-year permit. They must also have private health insurance. This situation pushes many student-migrants to undertake precarious low paid work alongside studies. For researchers without an employment contract the required sum is 12,000 € a year. Moreover, counting work hours and income as well as meeting deadlines is required in order to extend or switch one’s residence permit becomes a central feature of the labour of paving the way towards a life on stable legal ground in Finland. 

3. Language proficiency as a recruitment barrier

Language is often experienced as a major barrier and is ‘used’ as a tool to exclude the non-native from the recruitment process albeit their skillset and experience matching perfectly with core job requirements. Even when skilled and educated migrants secure permanent positions, their chances of upward career mobility are slim in the absence of language proficiency. While language plays a big discriminatory role in the careers of migrants, right from recruitment, selection and promotion, fluent language skills alone do not necessarily result in securing a desired job. Language often becomes connected to a quest for a specific “Finnish ethnicity”, meaning that language requirements might function as a form of racism.  

4. The limitations of networking

Networking is crucial in the Finnish labour market as 85% of the job openings are never advertised. However, contacts within the migrant community does not help in finding work; rather, useful connections are those with Finnish people who are actively engaged in the labour market. It is also argued that since the unemployment rates are high for all population, recruiters tend to prefer Finnish labour to foreign labour. Thus, social contacts with current employment become the carriers of invisible recruitment process. For employers, the benefits of network recruitment include reducing the recruitment cost of time and money and ensuring new hires share similar characteristics as previous employees. However, the exclusive nature of network recruitment effectively renders it a discriminative labour market practice whose consequences may be detrimental for specific migrant groups without Finnish networks.

5. De facto recognition of qualifications and ‘skills’

For the foreign population in Finland, the biggest challenge to recognition of skills and qualifications is neither limited to qualifications obtained abroad, nor documented skills on paper. Migrants in Finland struggle to find employment compatible with their qualifications. As a person studying and working in Finland said in a research interview: “Just having a Finnish degree won’t take me where I want”, suggesting that the recognition of skills is bound to racist imaginaries of ethnicity and not really qualifications or skills.

The way “skill” is defined can also render crucial expertise and capabilities of foreigners invisible and inaccessible. For example, governments tend to produce specific categories of skills to respond to political and economic agendas as well as selective migration policy. Recent research shows that Finnish employers often fail to acknowledge and reward embodied skill that is culturally acquired or learnt through lived experience such as work experience obtained prior to migration. Instead of recognising education qualifications, research point to imageries of ethnicity and race that produce certain assumptions of ‘skill’. For instance, the supposed suitability of Asian women suitable for care work or African women for certain types of manual work.

6. No fairyland of equality

To conclude, Finland is not a fairyland of equal job opportunities. Instead, as we have argued, there exists a multiplicity of skilled and educated foreigners in Finland who face extensive challenges finding suitable work and means to legally remain in the country. In place of advocating for more, better, brighter talents, we should continue scrutinizing why knowledgeable people already in Finland do not seem to qualify for this pool of expertise. Is the objective to actually  import ‘global talent’ , or is it so that only certain predefined figures with the right kind of social, ethnic and geographical background fit the category of ‘talent’?

About the authors:

Jawaria Khan (@JawariaKhan08) is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. She has a background in development and international cooperation. Her main themes of interests include mobilities, brain drain, migration, highly skilled labor market integration and higher education internationalization, and in her doctoral dissertation she is examining the mobility decisions of academics from Finland. Contact: jawaria.khan@helsinki.fi.

Olivia Maury is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. She is about to defend her thesis in sociology on working non-EU student-migrants in Finland analysed from a perspective of borders, temporality and precarisation. Contact: olivia.maury@helsinki.fi.

Quivine Ndomo (@nquivine) is a Project and Doctoral researcher of Social and Public Policy at the University of Jyväskylä. Her research is focused on labour market segmentation and migrant division of labour patterns in the EU with a focus on highly educated African migrants, as well as worker posting in the EU. . Contact: quivine.a.ndomo@jyu.fi.