Why does Finland’s main urban centre attract so few highly skilled immigrants? Our safe and civilised northern metropolis-lite has a lot going for it, yet it is largely shunned by the internationally mobile creative class. SixDegrees counts down the main problems identified by researchers at the University of Helsinki that keep our capital from growing into a more cosmopolitan city: some we can change, some we have to live with.

1. Dysfunctional job market

It’s almost never easy finding a job. Even at the best of times it’s rare you find yourself not up against competition, and the Finnish job market in general has never really been among the world’s healthiest. It’s hard enough if you’re a Finn, never mind a foreigner looking for work anywhere outside the ICT sector. Studies have shown that difficulties in entering the job market are one of the main reasons that have made the integration of immigrants an often protracted process.

From the point of view of highly skilled workers, it’s also important to have a “thick” job market, which allows people to switch jobs

at regular intervals. Why move to a place where you only have one job option, when you’re used to moving from one employer to the next every few years? All kinds of sectors are feeling the financial squeeze, including those where highly trained immigrants have often provided labour – the IT and multimedia markets, for instance.

Not surprisingly, language issues are at the core of problems. While it is understandable that Finnish should be a requirement in jobs

where you actually have to talk to people, often the requirement isn’t practical. And why should someone go through the trouble of learning the language when they might only be around for a few years? Many international professionals move around and might only be interested in staying in Finland for a limited period. Not everyone comes to stay for life, but that shouldn’t prevent them from working.

Apart from the language issue, various legal criteria are commonly in place, meaning that foreigners are last in line for work. For example, if you want to work as a teacher in Finland you may do so, but if someone with a teaching degree from this country applies for the same job, they’ll get it automatically. There are many good reasons to live in Finland, but a vigorous employment market probably isn’t one of them. In fact, the dysfunctional job market is the main infrastructural defect that keeps skilled immigrants away from Finland. It certainly does nothing to pull them in.

2. Impenetrable social networks

Feeling accepted in a new community is an important part of integration. Not only can life be unbearably lonely without meaningful social contact, a lot of information and influence, including jobs, circulate through circles of friends and acquaintances. The Finns’ reputation for being tacit and inward is liable to jeopardise Finland’s attraction for many professional and creative communities. Helsinki is relatively underdeveloped in terms of cultural diversity (in comparison to other European capitals) and the social networks of many Finns are understandably close-knit. A tendency to resist change originating from outside the network is possibly more apparent among the older generations, as social networks are undoubtedly tightly connected to language.

The younger generations have been exposed to more influences from other cultures due to higher mobility in society, resulting in less homogeneity and thus more accommodating attitudes towards outsiders. The perceived prejudice is in fact more of a misconception, but it can still be a deterrent where mobility to Finland is concerned, and thus a hindrance for the country’s development.

Unfortunately, those trying to integrate into the community may become more asocial themselves for fear of feeling rejected when attempting to befriend a Finn, which may lead the Finns to assume that the immigrants do not wish to integrate. And so the cycle continues. In order to rectify the preconceived prejudice, the gross generalization of all Finns as being introverted and lacking internationalism needs to be replaced. With a little bit of effort from both native Finns and immigrants, not only will the community be more cohesive but also undoubtedly more attractive, internationally.

3. The Language

As anyone who has ever attended a Finnish language class will tell you, it is not the easiest language on earth. With more than a dozen cases, a strange absence of articles and prepositions, and a logic which seems to have nothing in common with English at all, just getting through that first class can be an ordeal. And although it is often said that foreigners don’t need to learn Finnish, in reality the truth is often otherwise. Speaking Finnish is all but required to gain access to a wider social life as well as the networks, the office grapevine and the inner circles where information and contacts circulate.

Certainly non speakers of Finnish can get by in Finland, but it is neither as easy nor as pretty as many Finns might imagine. While courses in Finnish are widely available, the teaching of Finnish is still somewhat of a work in progress. Even the best providers of training, such as the University of Helsinki, struggle to incorporate conversational fluency into what can otherwise seem like a three-year course in abstract grammar. Other courses struggle to equip learners with the key survival phrases. This will naturally change. With one in ten Helsinki residents now having a native language

other than Swedish or Finnish, English will become more widely spoken, and more and more foreigners will learn Finnish as resources improve. In time, we may see fully bilingual, Finnish-born Spaniards teaching other Spaniards Finnish. But for now, the mountain that is the Finnish language is unlikely to get much easier to climb.

4. The Climate

Mention Finland wherever and to whomever and you can bet your last euro that the subject of climate will arise. Long, cold and dark are synonymous with a Finnish winter even to those with little knowledge of the country. Finland’s distinct seasons are unlikely to be considered a significant factor for immigration, but the perpetual darkness and the cold and damp misery can certainly cause contempt for the country.

The doom and gloom can take its toll on your sanity, and like an explorer’s mirage of a desert oasis you start to imagine warm, sunny days. Then, after what feels like eternity summer finally arrives. And no sooner than it does, it disappears like ash in the wind. The idea of around-the-clock darkness and the prospect of snow can be exciting at first, but after one winter your patience begins to wear thin and the novelty fades.

It’s quite likely that the perceived preoccupation with the climate is responsible for the vitriol. In reality it’s not so bad, particularly in Helsinki which, thanks to the Gulf Stream, is milder and less extreme than many of the areas north or further inland. Once you’ve mastered the art of dressing for the fact that it is colder outside than in your warm apartment, then its

just a case of remembering that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not only will you survive, you might even start to enjoy the long winters as much as you do the long summer days! The Finnish weather has a certain alluring charm and although you might be able to spend Christmas on a beach in the Caribbean, there’s no chance of a white Christmas there!

5. Expensive and cramped housing

Square metres in Helsinki are ridiculously expensive in relation to the city’s size. Compared even to cities like London and New York, living in central Helsinki is disproportionately costly. And the flats are small, cramped, and sometimes (especially in the suburbs) quite nasty-looking on the outside. Again, the climate makes a difference. Insulation and heating are expensive necessities in these latitudes, and a smaller flat is ultimately cheaper to build and maintain. Of course, not all international professionals want to live in the city centre. Unlike the stereotypical “creative types”, many knowledge or creative workers do not leave their uptown loft every night to go hang out at Korjaamo or Kaapelitehdas. It’s often the more settled individuals that prefer to commute from Espoo or Van

taa, where square metres are cheaper.

6. Outdated attitudes

On The surface, many Finnish towns are becoming more international in the make-up of their population, but that’s not to say foreigners are necessarily made to feel welcome. The rise of the True Finns is just one manifestation of a general xenophobia, which by no means affects everyone in the country, but is an influence among large sectors of the populace. It’s not that many years ago that the presence of anyone not a blue-eyed blond-haired Nordic on the streets of Helsinki would cause people to stop and stare. These days it’s not so overt, but if you start meeting Finns above the age of 40, throw-away chauvinistic jokes and casual racist remarks are liable to surface, especially if you speak Finnish. The current “critical” discussion on immigration

in particular determines prevailing attitudes in society, which in turn determine who will want to come here to live and work. The way Finns talk about immigration has the greatest effect on those who are here of their own free will and can leave any time they want. And they do react to this kind of climate change.

7. Lack of cosmopolitan culture

Compared with a metropolis like Berlin, Helsinki is not as “internationally” known and so despite its cultural offerings, it lacks the same kudos. The cosmopolitan vibe of a city can be a pivotal factor in its attractiveness. Helsinki is undoubtedly the main hub of Finland’s creative industries. There are plenty of events designed to encourage interaction between the different professions, but the urban structure of Helsinki is not as intensified as that of other cities.

As immigration levels (and population density) continue to rise, however, the way in which inhabitants interact is changing, and the urban centre of Helsinki is expanding. Culture is what differentiates cities and with an increasing multicultural vibe, Helsinki needs to be more adventurous with what it has to offer.

If you’re used to a city-that-neversleeps such as London or New York, it can be very frustrating to discover Helsinki’s distinct lack of 24- hour services, limited nightlife and the fact that from Monday to Wednesday it might as well be a ghost town. Such concepts and services were relatively alien to Finnish culture before the increase

in immigration, but slowly Sleepy Hollow is starting to take tips from Millennium City. Sunday openings, 24-hour convenience stores and after-party clubs are fast appearing. These are innovations for natives and a little familiarity for those accustomed to the 24/7 culture.

Helsinki’s close proximity to the countryside means that it has developed as an equilibrium between urban and rural which is something that distinguishes it from other capital cities. This offers Helsinki the chance to provide something unique, the ability to maintain its own identity rather than becoming a clone of other popular capital destinations. Helsinki’s internationalism still has a long way to go but with every step the city takes towards a less homogeneous, more convenient and accessible culture, the more vibrant and attractive the city will become.

+1 Nobody knows about Helsinki

One of the biggest problems with Helsinki’s reputation abroad is that it has none. While the immigrants who have settled here generally have good things to say about Finland, more often than not they come here with no idea of what to expect. The travel guide images of lakes, saunas and birch trees are only a part of the story, and often a part that has little appeal to immigrants of the creative class. And while the mystique of this wild frontier appeals to some adventurous individuals, it would benefit the city greatly to get a good word of mouth going about its brighter sides.

Nick Barlow - David Brown - Daisey Cheyney - Matti Koskinen
Kristin Ay

Helsinki’s Stagnant Creative Class

How do locales appeal to international professionals in the global competition over economic and human resources? The EU-funded ACRE (Accommodating Creative Knowledge) research project combines data from 13 cities to find out what attracts skilled workforce within and across national borders in the European context.

The question is largely based on the work of American social scientist Richard Florida, say researchers Venla Bernelius and Elina Eskelä from the University of Helsinki Geography Department, one of the ACRE project partners. They have interviewed a selection of immigrants who work in creative or knowledge-based industries in Helsinki about their experiences. The countdown listed here is based on their findings.

Florida’s “creative class” theory sounds like a vindication of hipster society. He claims that when it comes to educated professionals, a vibrant cultural scene and an open-minded atmosphere – so-called “soft factors” – are more important incentives when choosing a place of residence than the traditional “hard factors” like work and economy. Companies, Florida asserts, go where the talent is, so cities need to attract skilled labour in order to maintain their economic momentum.

Helsinki, bluntly put, is screwed. The city faces a future job surplus in precisely the fields which form the engine of its economic growth. The Finnish population is rapidly ageing, but Helsinki’s ability to attract skilled workers from abroad is pitiful. The consensus among HR people seems to be that there’s really no need to tap into the international talent pool. To make matters worse, the city is unable to retain its existing talent. Finland is one of two EU countries currently experiencing brain drain.

“What we’ve found out is that to a large extent people move because of hard factors, but on the other hand it is the soft factors that mostly affect how people get on in their new surroundings,” Bernelius points out.

In short, people don’t intend to come to Finland, they just wind up here. Most either come for a job or for family reasons. The ones who don’t have a job lined up soon discover it’s extremely difficult to find one, even if they are experts in their field. Getting ahead in the social circles can be equally frustrating. Language, of course, is a key issue,but there’s a wider endency to exclude immigrants from social and economic life. Part of it is due to many Finns’ awkward relation to foreigners, part of it is just plain old Finnish timidity.

“We interviewed one woman who shared her office space with a Finnish male co-worker,” says Eskelä. “For a full month they didn’t speak a word to each other. After one month she asked him ‘what exactly is it that you do here?’ and they finally opened a line of communication.”

On the other hand, despite the many deterrents, most of the highly skilled immigrants who do stay rather enjoy living in Finland. Helsinki’s mix of small town and big city features – safety, functional infrastructure, urban nature – are what sets it apart from the competition. But all that is little known outside of Finland. One of the biggest problems discovered in the interviews was Helsinki’s lack of reputation.For the city to attract more skilled immigrants, not only would the job market need to start reeling them in, but its image abroad could use a bit of a boost.

Matti Koskinen