Finnish employers often require native-like fluency from immigrants, restricting job prospects

Language courses are difficult to locate, and the proficiency gained through them is seen as insufficient by employers.

Kimberley Gowdy started her own enterprise after struggling to meet employer language requirements. Image: Juha-Petri Koponen / Yle

Like many other immigrants, Kimberley Gowdy, an American who lives in Lahti, is highly educated. She has studied linguistics and, as part of her professional history, been a university educator, an expert in e-products, a translator and business analyst. She is fluent in English, Spanish and French.

In Finland, however, Gowdy has not been a sought-after employee because she does not speak fluent Finnish.

Gowdy blasts the difficulty of finding appropriate Finnish-language courses. What the employment office considers adequate language skills are not enough for the employer.

"There are no courses to fill this gap. We are marginalised because we cannot go any further. This is how we become forced to work as cleaners or caretakers. Why would I have to work in those professions and abandon my dreams? It's not fair," she says.

According to a survey commissioned by the Kotona Suomessa project (At Home in Finland), last year, almost half of the companies suffering from labour shortages want employees that come from a foreign background to speak native-level Finnish.

The requirements remain strict, even though, according to a survey by the Finland's Chambers of Commerce, three out of four companies suffer from a shortage of employees in Finland. The situation will worsen as more and more professionals retire.

The labour shortage will not end just by lowering language skill requirements. In the survey, companies estimate that only eight percent of recruitment challenges are due to applicants’ lack of fluency. But lowering the language requirements would help thousands of companies get the much-needed workforce and at the same time employ a larger number of immigrants.

Employing immigrants by re-arranging work assignments

Many jobs require a strong knowledge of Finnish from all their employees, even if the requirements for the positions vary. Botond Vereb-Dér, project manager of the Lahti TalentHub project in Päijät-Häme, hopes that companies will think more carefully about the tasks for which Finnish is essential. For example, in a restaurant, a kitchen employee does not necessarily have to know Finnish as well as a waitress working in customer service.

According to Vereb-Dér, employers could also re-arrange assignments, so that not all employees provide customer service.

Prejudice behind the language requirements

Anna Bruun, a ministerial advisor on migration and integration policies at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, thinks that there may be conscious or unconscious bias behind the high language requirements. An employer may require employees to have unnecessarily high language competency due to their own uncertainty. For example, an employer may think that work-permit issues could be difficult to resolve or have a fear that an immigrant might change the work community.

Many employers have prejudices against people of foreign background. Akhlaq Ahmad, a sociology researcher at the University of Helsinki, conducted a test in 2016-17, in which he sent out 5,000 job applications, with both Finnish and foreign-sounding names. These fictitious people all spoke good Finnish. The jobseekers with Finnish-sounding names received the most interview requests, by far.

Bruun admits that changing employers’ attitudes is a slow process. The Ministry's Talent Boost program for acquiring and applying international know-how has been underway since 2017.

In Bruun's opinion many things have improved. For example, employers are being offered more support and information about hiring immigrants. The process regarding the resolution of work permits has also been accelerated.

Immigrants encouraged to become entrepreneurs

Another option is to encourage immigrants to start their own businesses. You can succeed on your own, even if the conjugations of words are not always perfect. Bruun sees entrepreneurship as a good option, as long as immigrants are not forced to become entrepreneurs because there are no other options.

Gowdy attended TalentHub's entrepreneurship course in Lahti during her maternity leave. Now she bakes gourmet cookies and other pastries as part of her own company.

"In America, we say that when you follow your passion, the money will follow," she says.

Even as an entrepreneur, Gowdy has not completely escaped language barriers. She is frustrated by how difficult it is to compete against native Finnish competitors. Gowdy has also found it difficult, at times, to find official information on the authorities’ webpages, utilising her current language skills.

Despite these difficulties, Gowdy believes in her company and has already found vendors who want to sell her product. Her intention is to expand her business abroad, not just conquer the domestic market.