Following Russia's deadly invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Ukrainians are expected to seek safety in Finland, most of whom will be looking for work.
Yulia Shevchenko is one of them. She arrived in Helsinki with her five year old son a month ago, while her ex-husband, father-in-law, and grandfather all stayed in their native Kyiv to aid the war effort. She came to Finland because her brother lives here and was able to offer a place to stay.
Shevchenko is 27 years old, and "very happy and grateful" to have found safety in Finland, but is now contending with the stress of finding work as a foreigner with limited Finnish and English skills. She is also worried that her previous qualifications from Ukraine will be of little use in Finland.
"I'm applying everywhere. Restaurants, cleaning, international companies. I need to find work quickly to provide for my son. It feels strange having to start again like this," she explained.
"My Ukrainian degree has no value here, and I would need completely new qualifications in Finland to resume my previous work," she explained. Shevchenko is a trained clinical psychologist who previously worked in dental administration.
Shevchenko added that although she is willing to do "any work available" to pay the bills, her efforts have not produced any job offers yet.
She receives a small allowance from the state, and plans to one day become fluent in Finnish and to graduate from a local university. In the meantime, Shevchenko has enrolled in online Finnish classes, and looks forward to lessons held in real classrooms soon, so that she can learn more quickly.
An inflexible job market
Her experience mirrors what volunteers are seeing on the ground. Olga Silfver, a Ukrainian-Finnish volunteer with the Ukrainian Association of Finland (siirryt toiseen palveluun), describes the Finnish job market's "well-known difficulties" as one of the major challenges facing new arrivals.
Finland currently has some of the lowest employment rates (siirryt toiseen palveluun) for foreign-born residents in the OECD. Around 27.5 percent of all working-age foreigners are unemployed, compared to just 7.5 percent of the native-born population.
Meanwhile, employment rates are even worse for those who originally came to the country as refugees. Cohorts from the wave of asylum seekers who entered Finland in 2015 — largely of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan origin — are much more likely (siirryt toiseen palveluun) to be unemployed than other foreign-born groups.
"If anything will hinder the ability of Ukrainians to get jobs, it is the inflexibility of the Finnish labour market," Silfver said. With her day job as a Project Manager at the City of Espoo’s Employment Services, Silfver is well-equipped to help Ukrainians navigate the local job market.
"We already know that employers are reluctant to hire anybody who doesn't speak fluent enough Finnish, even when no aspect of the job requires Finnish language skills. There is an urgent need for companies to be more flexible on this than they have been in the past," she added.
The association also noted that many arrivals do not speak English either, adding another "layer of disadvantage" that they must contend with.
Ukrainians also have to contend with attempts to lure them into exploitative or dangerous work. Silfver explained that they have noticed a spate of online jobs ads in the Helsinki region calling for single women to perform unspecified tasks for an unnamed employer.
"To us, this looks like an attempt at forced prostitution or trafficking, so we try to get the ad taken down," explained Silfver, adding that the fact that most of the ads are written in Ukrainian or Russian means that they fly under the radar of Finnish authorities.
"These dodgy recruitment practices might seem obvious to some people, but when you're fleeing war, desperate, and can't put food on the table, you're much more likely to take risks".
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Risk of wasted potential
Silfver says that the majority of arrivals the association is assisting are well-educated and highly skilled, but they still might not find work matching their experience.
"Most of the people arriving in Finland right now are educated, connected, and qualified. We are seeing nurses, teachers, graduates, and salespeople making up a significant portion of arrivals – all people that Finland is in critical need of," Silfver explained.
Silfver also noted that the process for getting non-EU qualifications recognised in Finland, especially in tightly regulated fields such as medicine and education, can typically take many months or even years.
For those wishing to enter the teaching and childcare sectors, C1-level Finnish is required before a candidate can even begin "bridging" training to have their existing qualifications recognised in Finland.
"Given that most foreigners in Finland will struggle to exceed B1 level Finnish, we’re obviously concerned that these requirements could result in a lot of qualified Ukrainians being locked out of their professions," Silfver concluded.
New challenges, new opportunities
Susanna Piepponen, an employment ministry senior specialist who has been tasked with addressing labour market challenges for Ukrainians, said that the demography of this refugee wave presents unique challenges and opportunities.
Piepponen noted that the recent wave of arrivals presents a "very different situation from previous arrivals from, say, Somalia or Afghanistan, who were more likely to be male and less educated", adding that there is a much stronger political consensus to integrate Ukrainians.
"The political will is much, much stronger than in 2015. There is a consensus across all political parties that the most important thing is to welcome Ukrainians and help them join Finnish society as quickly as possible, which was not always the case with refugees in the past".
The ministry also estimates that the majority of arrivals are working-age women with university degrees, many of whom have young children. While this represents specific challenges related to childcare needs and the heightened risk of trafficking, the benefits to Finland of successfully integrating these arrivals into the labour market are also clear.
"We are not blind to the fact that many of these arrivals have skills that Finland really needs," Piepponen explained, noting that authorities have made unprecedented efforts to integrate Ukrainians into the labour market quickly, such as by expediting the registration process.
With up to 80,000 Ukrainians predicted to arrive this year, policymakers have acknowledged the need to integrate them into the labour market quickly. Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment has made clear (siirryt toiseen palveluun) that any Ukrainians arriving in the country will receive a work permit as soon as their residence application is registered, in accordance with the EU's Temporary Protection Directive.
Getting this right
Piepponen describes these recent moves as a "huge overnight change" for a country that is usually very particular about documentation. While acknowledging that "major" changes to how professions are regulated would be needed to allow Ukrainian educators and nurses to work in their respective fields in Finland, she is optimistic that the country will eventually be able to integrate all arrivals into the labour market and provide jobs that match their skill sets.
She added that the benefits of "getting this right" for Finland were significant, given the pressing labour shortages the country faces.
This sentiment was echoed by Silfver at the Association for Ukrainians, who added that the cost of failing to get the recent arrivals into decent jobs was too great.
"If we don’t step up and get this right, we’ll have tens of thousands of people who sought refuge here finding themselves unable to contribute or live a fulfilling life.
Meanwhile, Yulia Shevchenko said she is aware of the challenges that she faces in Finland, but also remains positive about the future.
"Everything is so crazy right now that it's hard to think about what the next five years will look like. I just want to get my son into kindergarten, improve my language skills, and hopefully work in a job where I can speak with and help people", adding that she hopes to be able to use her earlier training to provide psychological support to future arrivals from Ukraine.
"I'm always trying to be optimistic. My psychology background tells me that this is probably just a defense mechanism, but I've also seen that people are nice here and very open to help. I hope I can help too".