Jolene Boudavong moved to Finland from Laos in southeast Asia in 2009. After six years looking for work in Finland, she finally landed a position as a member of the housekeeping staff of Arctic Light Hotel in Lapland.
"I tried to find work many times. However I was told that you can’t get a job in Finland unless you can speak, write and read Finnish," she said of her experiences.
According to the 37 year-old, officials at the local employment office repeatedly sent her to integration courses in a bid to improve her Finnish language skills. She lost hope of ever finding work.
"Frankly speaking, it’s an absurd situation. For us, Finnish language skills are neither required nor essential. In this case we needed a third sector, in other words, the private sector, to help Jolene get employment. Finnish language skills are not essential, but finding pleasure in work is. In this case it would have been no less than sinful not to benefit from that," said Arctic Light Hotel director Timo Kärki.
Language course teacher Heidi Alariesto also played a role in getting Jolene employed. She noticed the Laos native’s attitude and dexterity and contacted the hotel.
Government keen to get unemployed into job market
Lapland employment office director Tiina Keränen said that officials need to emphasise to job seekers that they can approach employers directly and that Finnish language skills are not always a requirement for work.
"Perhaps it has not been a priority during the integration phase," Keränen acknowledged. Government wants official to shorten the integration process to ensure that migrants enter the workforce as quickly as possible. That means officials are keen to avoid situations where migrants become trapped in language courses for years on end.
Integration programmes are structured so that the first five months are spent learning the basics of Finnish. The next five months are spent on learning work-related terms and expressions and getting to know workplace practices and routines. However this new form of integration training is only in its infancy.
Keränen said that employment offices provide migrants as well as native Finns with information about job vacancies. Information about an employer’s language requirements is therefore essential. However she pointed out that only about 40 percent of all actual job vacancies are advertised by municipal employment offices.
Hiring cooks directly from abroad?
Ranked among Finland’s best hotels by the travel and tourism site Trivago, arctic Light Hotel has not yet run into difficulty hiring new talent, in spite of concerns about a labour shortage in the sector. According to Kärki however, in the next few years it may become more difficult to find kitchen staff such as cooks – employers may increasingly begin looking abroad for such skills.
"I don’t think we can rule it out. In that line of work the quality and flavour of food is much more important than Finnish language skills," he quipped.
The hotel employs roughly 20 people, five of whom have foreign backgrounds and hail from Turkey, Russia, Thailand and Poland, apart from Jolene’s Laos.
"I assume that all of these languages have been used at our hotel and they have made an impression on our customers," Kärki commented, noting that roughly 95 percent of the hotel’s guests come from abroad.
"Why on earth would we require fluent Finnish, when we speak English anyway?"