What I learned about the Finnish job market after being fired
At the end of 2016, I lost my job. I had been working for more than five years as a Community Manager in one of the leading Finnish game developers. The budget was tight, there had been some tensions about sales, and my position was not crucial to get other projects on the market — so I was relieved of my duties. I have nothing but good memories about the time I spent at the company (with the exclusion of the final bit, for obvious reasons), and it hurt to have to let it go.
What hurt more, though, was to discover what was waiting for me on the Finnish job market.
A premise: I’m currently employed, this is my tenth year in Finland, I own an apartment here, and I’m married to an exceptional Finnish person. If the weather weren’t so damn wet, I would have no significant complaint about Helsinki. I tell you more: sunny days in Finland are spectacular — we just need 300 more of them.
With that out of the way, let me explain what I went through after receiving my last salary. In all fairness, the bureaucracy here is reasonably efficient, but that didn’t help much in making me feel better about my newfound condition.
The first thing one needs to do is to communicate their new status, hence joining the army of people in need of monthly support. Luckily, I had paid my union fees, thus gaining the right to 80% of my previous salary for up to 500+ days. Not bad, except that I did have an “active” toiminimi, or a “freelancer ID” if you will. That slashed the support amount by about a third, independently from the real gains of my side-business, at the time pretty much non-existent. I do, for example, use contractors to keep some clients “active” when I’m busy with a full-time position, worrying only about covering expenses. I also use my toiminimi to work on a personal project that by design doesn’t have much return.
After that I was sent to two mandatory meetings: one to assess my mastery of Finnish (which is weak by any standard, I’ll come back to that), and the other to present me with an overview of how to find work through KELA’s own portal.
In the first case, I was deemed not eligible for Finnish courses because most of them were full (refugees being the most prominent chunk of students). That didn’t come as a surprise, and it was a bit of a relief to be honest, as the courses are 8 hours a day and take several weeks, preventing me from looking for an actual job, develop my portfolio or improve other skills. Also, fair is fair — after 10 years in Finland, not speaking the language decently is entirely on me*.
That said, there is NO EVIDENCE that any degree of Finnish other than “fluent” would help me get a job in my field, as you can see in the examples below.
*Finnish ends up in Category 4 (of 5, the hardest) on the list of the most difficult languages to learn, with a note indicating it’s actually more of a 4.5.
All these are positions I’d be qualified for, except for language requirements. They follow the same pattern: announcement in English, job open only to fluent Finnish speakers. Why would you even publish the announcement in English then? To make sure the candidate can at least read English? I doubt it. To look international without having to commit? More likely. But here’s another story I heard a few years past: the fluent Finnish requirement is there to filter out specific candidates. In that case, it was about coding jobs, and the unwanted candidates were Russians and Indians — fluency in Finnish wasn’t a real requirement at all.
That, of course, is different for my case: I work with copy, and language is key there, but it shouldn’t be when the company has international ambitions, which is the case for all the companies featured in these screenshots.
KELA’s own portal, beside being incredibly outdated compared to other governamental websites, offers e-services mostly in Finnish. That includes the compulsory application for jobs you need to do to be elegible for support, a grueling 20 pages-something questionnaire I would have never have been able to compile if it wasn’t for my wife’s help. Kafka would love it.
Anyway, no one ever said losing a job was a fun ride, but things started to get worse quickly.
The search for a better future
Once bureaucracy was sorted out, I started focusing on the actual job search. It began with a bang, with nine interviews lining up in the space of two weeks. That meant my CV looked good (see it for yourself), maybe someone mentioned my name in a meeting, and chances to resolve the crisis seemed high. Unfortunately, none of these interviews panned out as I hoped, and I started to doubt my actual worthiness. Was it me? Them? Did I say something wrong? Wasn’t I smiling enough? Wasn’t I excited enough*? Or maybe…
Look, many people think of unemployment as a holiday.
If you don’t have a significant financial buffer to rely on, unemployment means waking up every day and try not to be a weight for your loved ones. We are not our job — I decided to look at it that way, but the sensation of people staring at you differently when you don’t have one is hard to shrug off. I resorted to claiming that I’m a freelancer when someone asked me what I did for a living — which is, if you notice, almost always their first question. And “being a freelancer” was factually correct, except that I didn’t have much going on, because having been busy on something else, I just didn’t have 10 active clients to invoice at my convenience. It takes time to rebuild a clients base, a time I didn’t necessarily have before running out of juice.
Stories from 50+ applications
It took me about 50 applications to land where I am now. Of these, 34 received an answer, and 19 led to one or more interview rounds. Some anecdotes:
- One employer had a two-months interview process, divided into 5 (FIVE) phases. NASA probably has a less severe screening. No salary requirement was brought up before the final phase — which is madness. Why would anyone waste so much time before asking a potentially deal-breaking question?
- I was offered an entry level salary after 7 years in the field. I could have barely accepted that offer as compensation for my first job (as a reference, a Finnish lawyer who has just graduated makes more than I make now). No shares or other relevant perks were suggested. A hint for others: selling my work for cheap is damaging my future perspectives, so I’d rather live on support money than accept an offer like that (also, support money was practically on par with the proposed salary).
- I got invited to an interview but wasn’t told the time or place, and wasn’t able to establish any contact via email or phone. I showed up at the company’s office, and the CEO casually realised he had invited me there at some point. If you are not considerate enough to set up an interview properly, perhaps I don’t want to work for you.
- A company contacted me four months after my first application. Either something went wrong with other applicants, or HR needed an upgrade. Four months in “job-searching time” is practically forever.
- On the same day, I received two offers: one in my field, the other in a new area. I went for the former and boy, was that a mistake. I ended up being scammed (read more about here, in Finnish). What’s more painful about the whole thing is that a) this shit just doesn’t happen in Finland. It happened to me. On paper, everything looked legit, including office space, salary requirements, etc. b) the team was excellent, but management was hellbent on… I don’t know what. Laundering money? It certainly looked like that c) Most of the employees were foreigners. That can’t be a coincidence. Some were forced to leave the country because salaries weren’t paid (nor have they been paid now), and certain work permits DEPENDED on regular incomes.
“Thank you, but no thank you.”
I’ve always been lucky with jobs. Since I started doing something related to what I studied for, I’ve been unemployed for relatively short times (the longer period being, to my surprise, the most recent. Not sure if there are more significant economic implications in play).
But I’m a European, white, and my name belongs to a nationality that only vaguely suffers from the “foreigner stigma”.
For some people, though, things are more complicated. This article from August, for example, shows how a foreign-sounding name hampers job search EVEN for people raised in Finland, let alone for actual foreigners who already are at a disadvantage because of the language barrier.
Good luck if you’re non-white and your name is, I don’t know, “Hassan Dahir Aweys” or “Qian Jazhen” (I kinda made these up, apologies if they sound random). There are many reported cases where applicants changing their name to a Finnish-sounding one increased their chances tenfold.
Adding insult to injury, if your family is non-Finnish, you need to have a ridiculously high net income to be able to reunite with them.
What a surprise then, when rising University fees resulted in a DRASTIC drop of extra-EU students.
I know from experience that HR departments tend to be understaffed, or non-existing, or overworked. But this is the country where I’ve choosen to live and pay taxes, and it has some severe issues when it comes to recruiting, resulting in losing out on strong candidates AND alienating them in the process.
I mean, come on, we’re not here for the weather. Give us a chance to compete.
Companies might end up discovering that some of their business practices required a new coat of paint anyway.