The Jobseeker: Oksana Chuvjurova
Chuvjurova, 32, eyes the new messages in her inbox carefully. The Employment Office’s job watch service sends her an email every time it finds a potential employment match.
Chuvjurova says she applies for around five jobs daily, sometimes even more. Her days have settled into a rhythm of checking emails and writing applications.
“I know I will find something,” says Chuvjurova, who was furloughed until further notice in July from her job of 3.5 years at a logistics company.
A psychologist by training, Chuvjurova moved to Finland from Russia nine years ago. Today, in the middle of the recession, she says she is willing to take just about any job.
Chuvjurova isn't alone in her plight. At the end of June, the number of unemployed jobseekers totalled 275,800, up 67,500 from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. That said, the competition for jobs is becoming stiffer by the day.
Sluggish economy cuts jobs
Chuvjurova’s former employer, which services hauliers between Finland and Russia, was hard-hit by the recession.
“The number of trucks coming through our office plummeted. Traffic drastically declined from just one year ago,” says Chuvjurova.
Layoff talks began at Chuvjurova’s workplace as 2008 drew to a close, and by the beginning of February her working hours were halved.
“The worst part of the whole process was anticipating the day I would get laid off. It was an immense relief when I was finally let go. Working part-time was tough psychologically and financially stressful,” she says.
“Spending constantly occupies my mind”
Out of work, Chuvjurova has been forced to cut out small luxuries like trips to the movies and eating out. For Chuvjurova, learning to live on less has meant trimming grocery bills by scouting offers at the local supermarket and eating whatever is in season.
“I stopped planning vacations and make a lot more food at home,” says Chuvjurova, whose income now is the daily 25.63 euro unemployment allowance doled out by Kela, Finland’s Social Insurance Institution. “What’s left of the allowance after tax doesn’t even cover the rent.”
Chuvjurova says she and her fiancé are trying to eat healthily despite the financial squeeze. She points to some recent prizes from her parents’ small vegetable patch: a large zucchini, a few potatoes and some spring onions. “We’re not being back-to-basics fashionable. These staples help us get by.”
Chuvjurova says she's trying to remain optimistic, but she does have one regret.
“I wish I would have joined a union earlier,” says Chuvjurova, while cutting into a homemade apple cobbler.
The Entrepreneurs: Mohamed El-Fatatry and Stephen Lee
Mohamed El-Fatatry and Stephen Lee run Muxlim, the word’s largest Muslim online community. While the buzz around Muxlim has not diminished in the downturn, the men behind the company say the tough economic climate is pushing them to their limits.
El-Fatatry’s eyes shine with excitement as he recounts a stroke of serendipity that injected some much-needed interest into his company. His recent business trip to the United States coincided with US President Barack Obama's visit to Egypt. Obama talked about creating an online network enabling instant communication between teenagers in Kansas and Cairo.
“In a matter of days we were sitting down with Farah Pandith, the US special envoy to Muslim communities,” says El-Fatatry, 24, the CEO and founder of Muxlim.
Muxlim is the brainchild of El-Fatatry, who moved to Finland in 2004 from the United Arab Emirates. Away from home and living in Muslim-minority Finland, El-Fatatry found he couldn’t keep up with his Muslim lifestyle through the Internet. Most sites about Muslim life were on politics and religion, but El-Fatatry was interested in the cultural aspects of his faith, like food, music and entertainment. He started aggregating information from various sites. Muxlim, a doorway to Muslim lifestyle, was born in Finland two years later.
“No room to let guard down”
El-Fatatry says that by last year it became clear that it was impossible for start-ups like Muxlim to raise venture funding in a recession-gripped economy. To survive, Muxlim managed to delay the need for external funding. However, this entailed reducing the company’s staff from 20 to 10 employees.
“We had to become more aggressive,” says Lee, 41, Muxlim’s Chief Operating Officer.
Finnish high-tech growth companies like Muxlim raised 17 percent less funding on average in the first half of 2009 compared to first half of 2008. Second quarter funding decreased more than 50 percent on the prior year, according to a survey by Technopolis Ventures, Finland’s largest business incubator.
With no room to let their guard down, Lee and El-Fatatry have not had a day of holiday this year. Both men say long hours logged at the office have strained their marriages.
Still, they are thankful they have managed to stay afloat. The recession has eliminated Muxlim’s two main global competitors.
"I believe the worst is behind us. It can only get better from here," says El-Fatatry.
Lee also sees a bright spot in these harsh times; people are experimenting more with the Internet. This is good news for Muxlim, whose potential users include hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide.
“We’re in charge of our own destiny,” says Lee.
The Mother Returning to Work: Zeynep Pekcan-Hekim
Zeynep Pekcan-Hekim, a young mother with a doctorate degree, has been job searching amid the downturn. She is well aware that Finland’s job market can’t absorb the ballooning number of people with PhDs.
“Right now my job security depends on whether funding is allocated for my position next year,” says Pekcan-Hekim, while helping her toddler up a slide in Helsinki’s Töölö district.
Pekcan-Hekim, 32, a Turkish environmental scientist, is no stranger to stringed short-term contracts and bleak funding prospects. She has been studying and working in Finland for the past ten years.
Environmental scientists like Pekcan-Hekim often rely on grants or public funding for income. Finding a job in prosperous economic times can be a challenge. Trying to re-enter the job market this spring, just when the economy was heading south, was daunting.
“As a foreigner here, I feel I’m already at a disadvantage when applying for the same grants as native Finns. The situation is not going to improve during the recession,” she says.
Too many doctorates already
Finland’s plethora of doctorates is undermining the value of advanced degrees. Finland’s universities churn out some 1,600 doctorates every year. The University of Helsinki reports a 24 percent upswing in the number of graduating doctorates in 2008 compared to 2006.
“The recession is making it even more difficult for the many doctorates on the market looking for work. Right now the situation is the worst for biologists and environmental scientists, some 350 of whom are unemployed at any given time,” says Eeva Rantala of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers.
“I believe it’s wrong that people pursue graduate degrees because there are no jobs, but who am I to criticise them—I did the same thing,” says Pekcan-Hekim.
Harnessing benefits at hand
Pekcan-Hekim says her fear about the job market crept in when she was holed up at home in the cold months of this year. She felt especially frustrated after learning she had been passed up for several postdoctoral grants.
Pekcan-Hekim decided to place her 15-month-old son in day care so she could job search and apply for research grants full-time.
Day care, however, came at a price.
“Losing the parental allowance lit a fire under me,” says Pekcan-Hekim, whose childminding money was cancelled soon after her son started day care.
Pekcan-Hekim consequently qualified for both unemployment benefits and a housing allowance from the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) to help pay the rent.
“Making it through those difficult times meant eating the cheapest foods and leaving organic products on the shop shelf. The large bags of lentils and bulgur that I purchased at Middle Eastern shops were lifesavers,” she explains.
Today Pekcan-Hekim works for a Finnish research institute. Her job, initially a two-year position, was downgraded to a seven-month contract that expires this autumn.
“I still believe foreigners who are qualified can find work in this country,” she says.
The Older Worker: Peter Knight
This summer Peter Knight lost his job at a large Finnish corporation, which employs many foreign workers. Although living from one short-term contract to another at the company made planning his life stressful, he still regrets being stripped of his job.
Knight, 60, is one of several workers at his company whose temporary contract was not renewed this summer. Knight says his work agreements at the company, whose name he prefers not be published, were usually drawn up for just under three months at a time.
“Sometimes when my contract ended on a Friday I wouldn’t know whether I would be coming to work the following Monday,” says Knight, a Brit who has called Finland home for the past 20 years.
Knight says he wishes employers would consider weathering the recession by reducing working hours instead of firing people.
“They could have offered me just one shift per week to allow me to keep my foot in the door,” he says.
Ville Kopra, an economist at the main blue-collar trade union confederation (SAK), says Finland needs to hold on to its older workers tooth and nail. Laid off people over 55 risk transitioning from unemployment directly into retirement. This is a pattern that the government and labour organisations are desperate to prevent. Finland's population is aging rapidly, and this will likely lead to labour shortages.
“The labour force loses knowledge when older workers leave, and this is a shame,” says Kopra.
Knight says he wonders if age discrimination cost him his job. But Kopra points out that although the downturn is hurting older workers, the ranks of unemployed are swelling faster for young people under 30.
Out of a job, Knight isn’t in dire financial straits. Today he earns a living from home by voicing audio books in English for the blind.
Lifestyle easy on wallet and environment
“I need to use as little money as possible now,” says Knight, pointing to stacks of firewood in his yard that he collected after the power company felled trees nearby.
Knight’s drop in income has not pinched his eco-conscious lifestyle, which includes cycling everywhere—even in winter—and buying most things secondhand.
His hobby, playing the bassoon in a local orchestra, is easy on the wallet as well. Spirituality has also helped him deal with the turmoil brought on by the recession. Knight is a member of the Anglican Church, which caters to a diverse international community.
Tuomas Mäkipää, the Assistant Curate at the Anglican Church, says that although the downturn hasn’t drawn more people to the church, it’s clear that people are rethinking their values.
“More congregants are worried about their jobs, but they continue to donate as much to the church as before. They see others in need and want to help,” says Mäkipää, whose church is largely dependent on community support.
Knight is now planning a trip to England to visit his ill mother—something he was unable to schedule when he was bound by unpredictable work arrangements.
Terminated but not bitter, Knight says he knows his old employer was pleased with his work. This infuses him with hope that the company will call upon him for seasonal work later in the year.
“In the end, I didn’t mind the short notices too badly. I want to go on working for as long as possible,” he says.
The Student: Tianyan Liu
Tianyan Liu is starting out his post-student life amid a brutal job market.
Young workers are hurting but Liu, 25, is not one of them. Tight economic times are, however, making him cautious about his next move.
Although graduating with a Master’s degree in Computer Science later this autumn, Liu says he has no plans of leaving his student job of five years as a software developer at a small Finnish firm.
“Now is not a good time to experiment on the job market,” he says.
According to Statistics Finland, the unemployment rate for young people in the 15 to 24 group was 28.3 percent at the end of the second quarter of this year, up 6.2 percentage points from the same period in 2008.
Layoff talks were recently held at Liu’s workplace and some divisions were forced to significantly cut payroll.
“It was a real bummer for those who received emails announcing layoff talks right before the summer holidays,” says Liu, whose own department escaped the job cut radar.
Recession pummels new grads
Although Liu won’t be scarred by the recession, he says he knows not all students share his situation. Liu, who moved to Finland from Beijing seven years ago, knows first-hand how difficult finding a job can be and underscores the importance of contacts.
“A friend helped me land my current job,” he says.
While contacts are helpful, recent graduates typically struggle to enter the working world because of their lack of experience.
“The recession hits people entering the job market the hardest,” says Pekka Sauri, Chairman of the Finnish Central Association for Mental Health. He says young people attempting to stand on their own two feet are more prone to anxiety and depression when the economy falters.
“Periods of joblessness in early adulthood can in the worst case lead to a career of unemployment,” says Sauri.
Coming from an IT background, Liu sees high-tech as the future of the Finnish economy. Ultimately he says it will pull Finland out of the current slump.
Liu, a former President of the International Student Organisation at the University of Helsinki, advises new grads to soak up education when the job market is rotten. He might even take his own advice; he is considering enrolling in an MBA programme to improve his position among the hordes of fresh grads flooding the market.
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