A study conducted among international students illustrates the importance of contacts in finding a job in Finland

Language requirements, the role of networks and racism are obstacles facing international students when looking for work in Finland.

Social networks and informal contacts play a significant role in the job seeking of international students in Finland. Such experiences were highlighted when postdoctoral researcher Rolle Alho from the Swedish School of Social Science interviewed students about their experiences related to job seeking.

“Many were frustrated by the significance of informal networks, as well as surprised, since Finnish society functions very formally in many other respects. Often, information on vacant positions flows only through informal channels. And even if vacancies are advertised, employers often hire an applicant they already know. Without the right type of networks, applicants are left in a disadvantaged position, even if they have the right education and other relevant qualifications,” says Alho.

One of the interviewees summed up the situation like this: “You need to know someone who knows someone.”

For the study, Alho interviewed 31 international students who had relocated to Finland as adults, begun studying in a Finnish university or other higher education institution and found a job. The interviewees had either graduated or were in the final stages of their studies. The qualitative interviews, conducted in 2016 and 2017, focused on experiences related to looking for work in Finland. All of the interviewees were employed in Finland at the time.

Most of the interviewees had initially looked for work by answering job advertisements and through other formal channels – with poor results. Once they started utilising informal channels, they were more successful in their efforts.

With the exception of one interviewee, all of them pointed out that contacts in their ethnic groups in Finland made no difference in their search for a job, or, at best, resulted in poorly paid and unattractive positions. What opened the doors for them were contacts among Finns.

Certain interviewees had personally been subjected to racist treatment during their job search, with many of them noting that certain employers did not consider work experience acquired abroad a merit.

“Had I interviewed people who had not found a job, instances of racism would have most likely been more prevalent. Additionally, many interviewees said they were unable to ascertain why they so often received no response to their application. Could racism have played a part? In all likelihood, yes, since prior research has shown that there is structural racism in the Finnish labour market. Many believed that a ‘foreign’ sounding name was enough to impede finding a job.”

A priority for the government and universities

In recent decades, international migration and student mobility have grown exponentially. Traditionally, Anglo-Saxon countries have attracted the majority of students, but in recent years Finland and other ‘peripheral’ countries have increased their popularity as study destinations. Universities and other higher education institutions are globally competing for international students, who provide them with funds in the form of tuition fees.

The government programme of the Finnish government also spells out the importance of having international students remain in Finland after graduation in order to utilise their expertise in the labour market.

“It’s a paradox that while universities and the government have set a goal of attracting more international students to Finnish universities and while there is talk about labour shortages in various sectors, we are seeing structural racism in recruitment processes that obstructs entry into the labour market,” Alho says.

Differences between fields

Some interviewees had experienced certain upsides to having a ‘non-Finnish’ background. Among Alho’s interviewees were some who had been able to turn their background into an asset in job seeking by highlighting their language skills and international contacts. Such qualities were considered valuable particularly in certain international fields.

“Interestingly enough, many interviewees said that increasing migration and globalisation are adding to the number of jobs available in Finland – and especially the Helsinki Metropolitan Area – where you can manage with English. Such jobs can be found, for example, in multinational businesses, startups and the IT sector. Many of the interviewees also emphasised that the attitude towards ‘non-Finnish’ applicants in these fields is more open and positive compared to many other sectors.”

The issue of language alone makes Finland a rather unique case in international comparisons, as not many who come to study here are proficient in the national languages of the country, which makes finding a job more difficult. Alho says that although language requirements are often justified, there are indications that employers may be making them unnecessarily strict in order to exclude non-Finns from the application process, something that many of the interviewees mentioned as well.

Further review of language requirements could be one way of mitigating the problem. Discrimination and racism associated with recruitment could also very likely be reduced to some extent by adopting anonymous recruitment processes, where applicants’ name, gender, as well as date and place of birth, would be omitted.

“This year the City of Helsinki is trialling an anonymous recruitment process in all of its sectors. Clearly, individual measures are not enough, but they can help in reducing forms of discrimination associated with who are invited to job interviews,” says Alho.


This release is based on Rolle Alho’s article ‘You Need to Know Someone Who Knows Someone’: International Students’ Job Search Experiences.


Further information:

Rolle Alho, postdoctoral researcher, rolle.alho@helsinki.fi

Phone: +358 40 720 4121