Aalto University: Facilitating international students’ integration in the Finnish labor market through act early concept

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Master’s students at Aalto University School of Business, Giacomo Lessi, Han Nguyen, and Janne Villanen undertook a project ‘Integrating International Talent’, with the aim to investigate and develop means to facilitate the employment of international talent to Finland, with a focus on international business ​students and Finnish SMEs specifically. This customised business project was carried out in collaboration with Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, Suomen Ekonomit, Aalto University Student Union, The Shortcut, Palta and Sivista to respond to a current and ongoing issue that affects international students in Finland.

Finland’s population is increasingly aging, resulting in labor scarcity and, thus, a reduction of taxpayers and many other social issues. Many continuous initiatives are performed by the government, municipalities, large corporations, and institutions, to attract and retain international talent, which is critical to tackle the issue in the future. However, international students can face many challenges in acquiring a career start in Finland, as well as being unsure of the need to start a career here. ​​

​​In 2019, SMEs accounted for over 99.1% of all employer firms in Finland, employing 64% of the workforce (OECD, 2022). Yet, international students usually overlook these firms. This problem is bifold: international students are unaware of the job opportunities offered or SMEs are not actively looking for international talents.

After reviewing the available material on the topic to understand the current situation of international talent in Finland, the team identified interviews as the core research method for the project. Interviews were conducted in two groups: business/economics Master’s students at both Aalto University and University of Helsinki and company representatives. Company interviews were conducted individually while student interviews were conducted in focus groups to encourage more discussion.

More and more companies say that fluent Finnish skills is no longer a requirement
The project team identified three main themes from the literature review and the discussion with international students and business representatives. Firstly, the lack of Finnish skills has been identified multiple times as the biggest barrier for internationals to find an employment. Yet, recent studies show that less companies require fluent Finnish skills from their employees nowadays.

From the interviews, it appears that the Finnish language is truly needed in certain positions that require meeting with local clients or in companies that operate merely in the Finnish market. On this matter, international student interviewees explained that they are willing to learn Finnish, but only as far as they see a future in Finland, which starts with employment for most of them. Moreover, international students’ determinant retention factor is often finding a job. An employment contract is a make or break to their stay in Finland. ​

Secondly, there is evidence which suggests that informal contacts / informal job search channels play an important role in the job search of foreign students. This was further confirmed and discussed in the interviews. International students should try to build their networks early in their studies to increase their chance for employment.

Finally, related to job experience, studies show that international students might have less relevant job experience comparing to the Finnish students, and companies expressed that relevant job experience is often crucial for hiring decisions. The findings of this project show that international student interviewees appear to have less relevant experience compared to the Finns. However, companies did not explicitly state that job experience is fundamental. Instead, they want students to show tangible evidence of skills and knowledge developed in their studies if they have not gained much work experience. ​

International students should be provided with all the information as soon as they start their studies
The main idea that emerged from the project, on which the team’s recommendations build, is to ACT EARLY. International students have a significantly shorter time horizon in Finland relative to Finnish students when it comes to searching for jobs, networking, or completing their studies. ACT EARLY suggests that international students should be provided with all the information and range of possibilities as soon as they start their studies in Finland, to maximize the initiatives’ effectiveness.

The team carried out extensive research on the existing mechanisms through which the international students’ integration into the Finnish labor market can be facilitated, and then heard the students and SMEs’ opinion. Eventually, the two most impactful action plans were identified in internships and mentorships. Since the stakeholders’ group consists primarily of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, the suggestions are calibrated on feasible action plans for universities.

‘The reasoning behind the ACT EARLY concept is that it enables internationals to gain a better understanding of the Finnish working environment and Finnish culture while studying. This is an important factor that can have a positive effect on the decision whether to stay or not in Finland after graduating,’ Janne Villanen says.

Internship to be part of the study path
Internships are extremely valuable when the student engages in a formative experience that enhances her CV and contributes to finding future employment more comfortably. For an international student, selecting the right offering is challenging because of the abundance of available opportunities and the lack of country-specific knowledge. Therefore, the team advances to create a space for companies to offer internships within the university’s online space that guarantees the university’s approval of the offering.

‘An internship that is approved by such authorities as Aalto University or the University of Helsinki takes off the pressure, uncertainty and consequential anxiety for verifying the trustworthiness of the employer from the international student’s perspective,’ says Giacomo Lessi.

Consistently with ACT EARLY, to maximize the effectiveness of the internship and potentially attract more international talent, the university should explicitly define a study path that includes the internship already at the time of enrolment. This way the student can already consider a future in Finland and signal higher commitment to employers. Providing information in the study plan at the time of enrolment does not overwhelm the student because this time is usually decisive for ultimately choosing a university and bountiful information must be digested regardless. Further considerations about the proposition are aimed at improving the image of Finland as a place to work and live for internationals.

Assigning a mentor to every international student
Mentorships can considerably benefit an international student by assigning a professional figure that listens to the student’s doubts and concerns, gives guidance on possible solutions and advises on career development. A mentor can be the first local professional contact in the international student’s network. Through the student interviews, the team discovered that most of the interviewed international students are not aware of the presence of a mentoring program or even neglect its benefits. The issue is not at the offering level – since the program’s efficacy has been proved – but lies at the communication level. The problem is indeed twofold: the proposition is unclear and the information about the program is dispersed. To solve these two problems the team identifies one solution, assigning a mentor to every international student when they begin their studies. This solution solves both communication issues by letting the individual student assess the mentoring program’s validity.

By making the mandatory program significantly shorter and shifting the responsibility for keeping the relationship with the mentor after the end of the program to the student, every student can decide to what extent to commit. This broadens the exposure of the mentoring program and, consistent with ACT EARLY, ensures that international students start building their future career in Finland since the beginning of their studies.

‘Being an international student myself, I strongly support having a mentor at the beginning of the study, as being introduced to the Finnish labor market and culture early can positively influence our decision, effort, and opportunities to start a career in Finland,’ says Han Nguyen.

Combining the two suggestions, the team aims to massively increase the number of students that are exposed to the Finnish work environment and, consequently, increment the share of them staying in Finland long term.

‘I would like to warmly thank the project team for their great work in dwelling into the needs and of our international students. It was also important to hear the views of selected SMEs, providing valuable information for the School to further explore and build on for developing contacts with SMEs as employers. Some of the recommendations, such as highlighting the ACT EARLY concept, will be taken into action immediately. We have now also extended our internship support budget for international students to cover the SME sector. Together with our partners for the initiative, we are planning targeted communication efforts with the aim to increase internship opportunities,’ says Jonna Söderholm, Head of External Relations, School of Business.

The student team was supported by Perttu Kähäri, Professor of Practice in International Business. In his other role as Head of Development, he is also responsible for diversity and inclusion matters at the School of Business.

‘It was exciting to work with this team. They had first-hand experience and a lot of insight on the challenges of international students finding jobs in Finland. This is a true challenge not only for the students, but also to the universities educating them and to the Finnish society overall. The team did a fantastic job in creating pragmatic solutions that will help us all. As Director of our Global Management MSc Program, I will be implementing them immediately. Their work has also given me a lot of insight for our research related to these topics.’

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