About discouragement and ambition: the job hunt in Finland

I usually try to keep Luminoucity as a platform for inspiration to travel, explore and to be curious. My personal views on society, politics and whichever topics that might provoke too much attention or conflict – I rather keep those personal with friends, family and in my “real” social life. Lately there has been again a lot of discussion about a certain topic: expats/foreigners/immigrants in Helsinki and the challenges jobseekers here face. As this is a topic that I have given a lot (maybe too much) thought over the last five years ever since I came to Finland, I thought maybe this is finally the moment for me to give a bit of input and share my experience.

(This is also not the first blog post I tried to write about this issue. It’s probably the result of about 17 drafts that I’ve been putting together over the years, but never saw me in the position to publish.)

A bit about my background: I myself came to study here, fell in love with the city and wanted to stay. Luckily found a paid internship position after my exchange year that led to some part-time work before I took the year off work to write my diploma thesis. This was a cooperation with Spotted by Locals Helsinki (a cityblog I had been writing for for a while) and Visit Helsinki, who kindly took my idea to the next level. This project was initially the door opener for me, I found a passion, met the “right” people and simply had a chance – and tons of luck with all this, to be very honest.

There was a time I did a lot of soul searching and debating about what I actually wanted to do with my life and where the hell I’d go and, of course, also how to finance myself in this country, which certainly isn’t the cheapest. Just like many, many others I sent countless applications that I put a lot of effort in, and in 90% didn’t even hear anything back.

During my thesis project I came to liking the idea of working at my own times, speed and control. So the thought of being self-employed seemed somehow liberating; yet and for a long time I was unsure if I was in a position in my life where I would be comfortable trading freedom in for uncertainty.

I took the leap into self-employment under my Luminoucity name about a year ago. The final push to actually doing that and taking it seriously came from an incredible opportunity I was given working with the Nordic Bloggers’ Experience. I will get back to this and how it happened further on.

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It’s not only in my personal experience, but also from the feedback I get from within my social circles and generally from the Expat community around the Helsinki area: Companies still are somewhat close-minded when it comes to working in languages other than Finnish. Even international companies that work with international clients, have English as their internal language will still not hire a qualified foreigner without native Finnish skills. And the stress here is on native. Fluent Finnish skills won’t get you much. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely encourage everyone to learn Finnish (I’m still on it myself) and I understand that especially local companies don’t want to go out of their way and change everything about their processes, just because there are a handful non-Finnish speakers around who want a job. But I kindly ask them to be open to the idea. If the job doesn’t require Finnish, give people the opportunity to work and grow while on the job. True story: I once spent an entire afternoon and evening at an assessment interview day at a marketing company, only to be told at the end of it, that they liked me, but since I don’t speak Finnish the language will be an issue. I have no words. Can’t you read my CV? You could have known this before having me waste a day there.

Adding international employees to your teams is in the end only going to benefit everyone around. Learning from another is what makes your workforce more flexible, skilled and worldly. Finland is catching up with many international markets and I firmly believe that many companies will – in the end – benefit from having a more culturally diverse corporate identity. (And it also forces us to learn (the language). And we want to learn.)

Second: The Finnish state offers high education for free, also for foreigners. Each year, many highly educated people from all over the world come to Finland to study, do their masters degree, get their PhDs. And what happens after that? People have to leave the country again because they can’t find employment. Again, it’s the whole language thing that drives people that benefit from the Finnish education system out of the country again even if they want to stay.

In my opinion, this is a paradox. Why would Finland invest this amount of money in people, who are willing to contribute to Finnish society and who want to bring this country forward with the skills they have acquired in this country – when there is no effort whatsoever to actually keep them here? There is a vast amount of highly qualified people who stay in this country for years (often at their own expense), working below their qualifications and sending countless applications without even getting considered (or even a reply). Why is this potential wasted? I have watched many close friends leave Finland, who gave up. Smart, clever people with several professional degrees, valuable job experience, multilingual, who just didn’t get a chance because this country is still “afraid” of us?

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I’m taking the liberty to give you some words of advice, based on my personal experience. Disclaimer again: this might not work. It might not work out for you at all, for your industry, for the person you e-mail. This is not a guideline on how to find a job in Finland.

  1. To put it bluntly: without Finnish language skills, it is extremely difficult to find a “regular” full-time position. If you plan to move to Finland just for the sake of it, be realistic and expect a lot of disappointment. Many people think that “once I’m there, it will be a lot easier searching for jobs on the spot”. No, it won’t. Make the effort to learn the language, and again, it will frustrate you deeply and on many levels. And even if you’re certain that you will probably not reach a level of Finnish to use it in your professional life, I’m confident that it might make a difference that you try and are willing. If you consider self-employment, this issue is still present. But I feel like many people see it as an option that will give them more control.

    (note: I would again like to stress that this is always subject to exceptions. The game and whole tech industry works successfully with a lot of foreigners and the list of open positions in that area is long.)

  2. Be creative. This is probably not only the key in Finland, but in the changing dynamics of business. There are more and more applicants, that have similar education, background and use the same fonts, same style pictures and phrases. Stand out. I shot application videos, summarising my background, values, experience, skills and personality. I gave my resume a makeover, there are tons of alternative layout templates out there and you only have to find the one that you seem fit for you, it’s worth a try. Get new pictures taken, ditch the business look and the fake smile and the white background; be yourself and try to bring that across genuinely. This is probably something working better in Finland, because I feel that being genuine and honest is valued even more. Send a funny .gif with your CV and cover letter, make them remember you. Don’t be another paper in the pile.

  3. Brand yourself. If you are not comfortable creating a public identity for you, skip this. This is very subjective and of course optional. But it helped me. Make it easy for people to get to you, even if it might seem very revealing to give a lot of information away, this was partly what made the difference for me. What are you good at? What do you do? Who are you anyway? Get a website, you don’t have to upload a whole personal resume, but make it easy for people to get it from you if they are interested.

  4. Be proactive. Trust me, I hate it too, but: networking. This is probably the most important advice I have for you. Go to every event that comes your way, trade fairs, alumni events, industry forums, conferences – get in there no matter what. Research topics, attendants, get a bunch of simple business cards (don’t carry your resume around). Join talks, introduce yourself, be introduced, make your mark, but don’t be pushy about your job search. Usually in these settings you might even stand out by nature because the amounts of non-Finnish speakers is usually smaller (so people will remember you as being the weirdo non-Finn). Collect business cards, follow up, write people e-mails, thank them for the nice conversation, and encourage them to contact you in case of opportunities. The Finns appreciate being straight forward, but minding your wording here is important: small things can make the difference. Things like “Applying for a job” or “Looking for job opportunities” in the subject line will get your message deleted pretty quickly. Things like “Let’s work together!” or “Continuing the conversation” will make you appear more positive and subtle and it encourages the building of a relationship and common understanding. Now would be the time to attach your resume as well. This is probably my favourite and most important piece of advice that I have for you, because this is how basically all opportunities eventually opened up, especially the Nordic Bloggers’ Experience project. After months of drought, I got a call. I was back home in Luxembourg after a family visit and literally sitting in my suitcase (I do that, I’m short) packing, when my phone rang. I answered and I was asked if I was still looking for opportunities. And that’s how things turned around.

    You might send hundreds of e-mails, but of the three replies you might get, there could be one that changes everything.

  5. Stay positive and be patient. Haha, how I hated it when people told me this! But in the end, well, what can I say. I have always been a firm believer in optimism and I believe that your attitude can change a lot of things. Keep your frustration offline and private. We all have those days, but don’t take it out on a public forum. There are better days when you won’t want to be associated with those negative thoughts anymore. Just get a big glass of red wine and a donut and watch cat videos. Tomorrow will be better.

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Thank you for reading and making it all the way down here. If you have input or feedback, leave me a comment below. If you’re a jobseeker and you’d like to sit down with me for help on finding a strategy for you, drop me an e-mail.

(title photo by Jef Verschueren)

4 thoughts on “About discouragement and ambition: the job hunt in Finland

  1. Excellent post! I agree, it is for sure not easy to find a job here in Finland as a foreigner. One aspect that of course also plays a role is that the Finnish economy is not doing too well in general and even Finns have their challenges finding a job these days.
    I can only encourage everyone who is looking for work here to follow Kathrin’s advise and be proactive. Think out of the box, don’t rely only on sending applications to well-known employers like Nokia, Microsoft, Kone, Rovio and Supercell but be open to try something else. Most likely it won’t be a full-time position in the beginning but there might be a project out there that you might be the perfect fit for. And if there is not, set one up yourself and convince the right people that it’s needed.
    Anyway, if you have a good idea for a business, then work on that, set up a company and join Helsinki’s awesome startup community. You will come across many like-minded and pretty cool people, get useful advise, possibly find business partners and even receive financial support from the government. If becoming an entrepreneur seems like an exciting alternative for you to sitting at home and writing job application but you don’t really know where to begin and how this whole things works, I’d also be happy to help you (ansgar@mmehr.eu).
    All in all I can just say, yes, it might be tough at times and maybe frustrating to look for a job in Finland. But don’t waste your time complaining about it but rather be active, creative and especially network, network, network. There are tons of amazing events all the time in the Helsinki region that are perfect for that. Most of them even for free. So go there!
    Good luck!

    • Thanks Ansgar for the in depth constructive comment! I agree, of course the situation in the country isn’t ideal for natives either, but after all the stories of resentment towards foreign applicants I had to add my mustard to it after all. I like your point of moving to apply at lesser known companies and look at start ups- excellent advice. The scene in Helsinki is extensive and the ideal playground for young, creative professionals. The good side of the situation is that you might be more likely to break the habit you created for yourself in the procedure of applying for jobs, rediscover your ambition in something that might not even be on your radar right now. 3 years ago I didn’t know what a blog was. And here we are! Thanks again!

  2. Hey Kathrin! Thank you for letting me know about this post earlier in Instagram. I agree with you in so many levels and especially regarding the issue with the replies from job applications. Unfortunately I would rather think it’s a national-spread practice which has been one of the things that have really made me lose my hopes temporary. I believe communication is key and nowadays having so many innovative ways to ease our day, time management and working day schedules, there should be no real excuse skipping on a message, even as a HRM. Or so I would like to believe.

    This summer I’ve graduated from my university degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management and well, you’ve probably noticed I had a quite rough time ever since then looking for anything in Helsinki. Hotels were my personal focus and didn’t consider the creative part of my field (like writing) until recently because I have and had no idea what to do with it. All the ideas I had, inspired moments or experiences in the city I kept for myself.

    It makes me feel “comfortable” somehow knowing there was someone time ago in the very same position as I am now (well, maybe with more internship experience than me) and succeeded in doing what she loves and has passion for! 🙂

    I could continue talking but better keep it short! Thank you for this post, really. There are things I’ve learnt from it: another confirmation on “LEARN FINNISH!” haha and… keep writing and maybe being more innovative with my own blog/website, which I would love to take to another level, maybe more focused on what I love, Helsinki.

    Thank you once again! I would love getting to know you more and maybe having a cup of coffee in our beloved Helsinki sometimes! 🙂

  3. Hello New Helsinkian! Thank you for your lovely comment, I’m happy you found something helpful in my post.

    I also don’t understand the issue with replying to or acknowledging the effort of a job applicant when they contact a potential employer. Nobody expects a personal apology if they have nothing for you, but not even having the courtesy to send a quick one-liner or forward it to someone who takes care of it – is beyond my understanding. Just have a draft ready somewhere with whatever phrase, but complete ignorance is just simply rude and doesn’t strike me with professionalism on their side. And then maybe it’s okay that you’re not working there 😉

    It’s good to find an outlet for your inspiration and ideas, it keeps you going and motivated and of course – also transfers on to others. I can only encourage you to keep going and “think outside the box”. I’m happy to meet you for a coffee and chat further. Let’s be in touch!

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