People in an office

Language requirements and prejudice hinder recruiting immigrants

News article

Immigrants have a difficult labor market situation. Many of the disadvantages they face derive directly from discrimination and prejudice in recruitment practices and hiring on the part of employers.

Recently there have been more and more news articles describing the difficult labour market position of immigrants. There are over 444,000 people of foreign background living permanently in Finland (1. In June 2021, 27,5 % of this workforce were unemployed (2. To compare, the total unemployment rate in Finland was 7,1 % in July 2021 (3.

To understand this phenomenon more profoundly, TEK undertook a project aimed at identifying the factors affecting the international labour market position of immigrants in tech.

The research by Shannon Nichols and Patricia Virsinger found multiple obstacles in the employment of immigrants in tech. According to the research, especially recruitment practices, such as too strict language requirements and lack of understanding foreign qualifications and experience stand in the way of employment. The research also makes recommendations on how to remove these barriers.

Barrier 1. “Fluent” Finnish requirement

In many job ads you see a requirement of fluent Finnish. But what does “fluent” actually mean? Would basic understanding of Finnish suffice?

Requirements of “fluent” or “good” Finnish are highly subjective benchmarks. Even having a foreign accent can be seen as a sign of speaking improper Finnish and mark one as a foreigner.

The research suggests that employers should get more familiar with the levels and contents of the Finnish National Certificate of Language Proficiency YKI (1-6) and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (A1-C2), to properly determine the required language skills for a certain job. 

It often feels like "fluent Finnish" is just an excuse not to employ internationals.

– It often feels like "fluent Finnish" is just an excuse not to employ internationals. Very often A2 or B1 level would be perfectly sufficient to do the job, versus native level, which is C2, says Virsinger.

Recommendation: Employers and recruiters should re-evaluate “fluent” Finnish requirements.

Barrier 2. Lack of recognition of education or work experience acquired abroad

It is common that the skills and qualifications of immigrants are not recognized in the recruitment process or at the workplace. Few immigrants work in their own profession in Finland and some were even forced to learn a completely new profession or re-educate themselves on their old profession.

– The studies we examined show that immigrants are often assumed to be unskilled or that they are in need to be educated of “the Finnish way of doing work”. The assumption that immigrants don’t know how to work in Finland shows the discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants and their studies or work experience outside of Finland, says Nichols.

Recommendation: Employers, recruiters and colleagues should learn to recognize foreign qualifications and work experience.

Barrier 3. Lack of contacts and opportunities to gain work experience in Finland

When comparing recently graduated Finnish and international students in the field of technology, you will notice significant differences in work experience and employment.

29 % of Finnish recent graduates had gained over 2 years of experience, and 34 % had gained between 1-2 years of experience in their own field. Of international students only 4 % had gained over 2 years of experience, and 16 % had gained between 1-2 years of experience from their own field at the time of graduation.

Furthermore, international students are more likely to do their master’s thesis in collaboration with a university (33 %) than Finnish students (16 %). 67 % of Finnish students and 36 % of international students completed their master’s thesis in collaboration with a company.

Twice as many international graduates are looking for a job at the time of graduation compared to Finnish graduates.

These differences impact the employment situation at the time of graduation immensely. Twice as many international graduates are looking for a job at the time of graduation compared to Finnish graduates.

– The international students are usually in 2-year Master’s programmes, whereas Finnish students have typically studied for 5 years before graduating. This means that Finnish students often have more time to acquire relevant work experience, which helps them find jobs after graduation as well, Virsinger describes.

– The results from TEK’s studies highlight the importance of contacts, which international students lack. We are encouraging companies and universities to partner up and offer internships, thesis positions and other similar opportunities to international students already during their studies. This would help international students create contacts and learn hands-on about the Finnish labour market, says Jari Jokinen, CEO of TEK.

Recommendation: Universities and companies should create opportunities for students to gain work experience in Finland.

Barrier 4. Bureaucracy

Getting immigrants in tech to come to Finland is only the first step – we should also get them to stay. However, the processes of moving to and staying in Finland are far from tempting. For example, the residence permit process is very arduous.

– To make some suggestions, the bureaucratic barriers to hiring non-EU nationals should be removed and the processing time for residence permits and the income requirements for visas should be reduced, Nichols says.

Recommendation: The government should reconsider the processes to attract foreign talent into settling into Finland.

Barrier 5. Lack of knowledge of the Finnish labour market and employee’s rights

The Finnish labour market is based on legislation and collective agreements, which safeguard employee’s rights. For immigrants, getting to know their rights and the rules of the Finnish labour market requires a lot of effort.

– We discovered that the ignorance of migrant workers about their interests and rights is sometimes exploited, for example, they might not be told that they have a right for a paid sick leave, Virsinger explains.

Recommendation: Professional organizations should offer more information on Finnish work life and on the services they provide in English.

What did we at TEK learn from hiring non-Finnish speakers?

The recruitment of Shannon Nichols and Patricia Virsinger also taught us at TEK where we have room for improvement. 
– For example, our intranet had been only in Finnish until Shannon and Patricia were recruited. We also didn’t have any information about TEK as an employer in English on our website. These were some of the most concrete things we needed to fix, describes Kati Johansson, HR director of TEK. 
The team where Nichols and Virsinger worked also needed to adjust their practices. Team meetings, emails and discussions switched to English. 
- Our Research teams transitioned really well into working in English, as our summer trainees also commented, says TEK’s Research Manager Susanna Bairoh, who was the supervisor of Nichols and Virsinger.
– It was important that everyone had an open attitude, rather than knowing how to speak perfect English or Finnish, Bairoh reminds.
Overall the experience was positive.
– We learned a lot and received valuable feedback, which taught us, for example, to take the language matter into consideration in our internal communication. We have also participated in the Recognising International Talent campaign by Väestöliitto, during which we will examine our language requirements and strengthen our organisation’s awareness on language matters and inclusiveness, says Johansson. 


1) Statistics Finland Persons with foreign background.…
2) Statistics Finland, StatFin-online / Employment service statistics (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment)