While authorities have moved quickly to ensure Ukrainian refugees can legally apply for work, questions remain about whether they will find secure, quality jobs that allow them to earn a living.
Following Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Ukrainians are expected to seek refuge 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, stepfather and grandfather all stayed in their native Kyiv to help with the war effort. She came to Finland because her brother lives here and was able to provide her with accommodation.
Shevchenko, 27, is “very happy and grateful” to have found safety in Finland, but now faces the stress of finding work as a foreigner with limited Finnish and English skills. She also fears that her previous Ukrainian qualifications will be of little use in Finland.
“I apply everywhere. Restaurants, cleaning, international companies. I need to find work quickly to support my son. It’s strange to have to start over like this,” she explained.
“My Ukrainian diploma has no value here, and I would need completely new qualifications in Finland to resume my previous job,” she explained. Shevchenko is a qualified clinical psychologist who previously worked in dental administration.
Shevchenko added that although she is willing to do “any available work” to pay the bills, her efforts have yet to produce any job offers.
She receives a small allowance from the state and plans to one day become fluent in Finnish and graduate from a local university. In the meantime, Shevchenko has signed up for Finnish lessons online and is looking forward to lessons in real classrooms soon, so she can learn faster.
An inflexible labor market
Meanwhile, employment rates are even worse for those who originally came to the country as refugees. The cohorts of the wave of asylum seekers who entered Finland in 2015 – mainly of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan origin – are much more likely (siirryt toiseen palveluun) unemployed than other foreign-born groups.
“If anything hinders Ukrainians’ ability to find jobs, it’s the rigidity of the Finnish labor market,” Silfver said. With her day job as a project manager at the Espoo City Employment Services, Silfver is well equipped to help Ukrainians navigate the local job market.
“We already know that employers are reluctant to hire someone who is not fluent enough in Finnish, even when there is no aspect of the job that requires Finnish proficiency. There is an urgent need for companies to be more flexible about this than they have been in the past,” she added.
The association also noted that many newcomers do not speak English either, adding another “layer of disadvantage” they must contend with.
Ukrainians also face attempts to lure them into exploitative or dangerous work. Silfver said he noticed a series of online job ads in the Helsinki region calling for single women to perform unspecified tasks for an anonymous employer.
“For us, it looks like an attempt at forced prostitution or trafficking, so we are trying to get the ad taken down,” Silfver explained, adding that the fact that most ads are written in Ukrainian or Russian means that they fly under the radar of the Finnish authorities.
“These shady recruiting practices may seem obvious to some people, but when you’re fleeing war, you’re desperate and you 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 the majority of newcomers the association helps are well-educated and highly skilled, but they still might not find work that matches their experience.
“Most people arriving in Finland at the moment are educated, connected and skilled. We see nurses, teachers, graduates and vendors making up a significant portion of arrivals – all people Finland critically needs” , explained Silfver. .
Silfver also noted that the process of recognizing non-EU qualifications in Finland, especially in tightly regulated fields such as medicine and education, can usually take several months or even years.
For those wishing to enter the education and childcare sectors, a Finnish level of C1 is required before an applicant can even start a ‘bridge’ training to have their existing qualifications recognized in Finland.
“Given that most foreigners in Finland will find it difficult to get beyond the B1 level of Finnish, we are obviously concerned that these requirements will prevent many qualified Ukrainians from practicing their profession,” Silfver concluded.
New challenges, new opportunities
Susanna Piepponena senior labor ministry specialist who has been tasked with addressing labor market challenges for Ukrainians, said the demographics of this wave of refugees present unique challenges and opportunities.
Piepponen noted that the recent wave of arrivals presents a “very different picture from previous arrivals from, say, Somalia or Afghanistan, which 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 in all political parties that the most important thing is to welcome Ukrainians and help them join Finnish society as soon as possible possible, which has not always been the case for 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 presents specific challenges related to childcare needs and increased risk of trafficking, the benefits for Finland of successfully integrating these newcomers into the labor market are also evident.
“We are not blind to the fact that many of these arrivals have skills that Finland really needs,” Piepponen said, noting that authorities have made unprecedented efforts to quickly integrate Ukrainians into the labor market, including speeding up the registration process.
With up to 80,000 Ukrainians expected to arrive this year, policymakers have recognized the need to quickly integrate them into the labor market. The Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment has made clear (siirryt toiseen palveluun) that any Ukrainian arriving in the country will receive a work permit as soon as their application for residence is registered, in accordance with the European directive on temporary protection.
To do things well
Piepponen describes these recent moves as a “huge overnight change” for a country that is typically very demanding when it comes to documentation. While acknowledging that “major” changes in the regulation of professions 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 newcomers to the labor market and to provide jobs that match their skills.
She added that the benefits of “getting this right” for Finland were significant, given the pressing labor shortages the country faces.
This sentiment was echoed by Silfver from the Association of Ukrainians, who added that the cost of failing to place newcomers in decent jobs was too high.
“If we don’t step in and get it right, we will have tens of thousands of people who have sought refuge here, finding themselves unable to contribute or live fulfilling lives.
Meanwhile, Yulia Shevchenko said she is aware of the challenges she faces in Finland, but also remains positive about the future.
“Everything is so crazy right now that it’s hard to think what the next five years will be like. I just want to enroll my son in kindergarten, improve my language skills, and hopefully work in a job where I can talk and help people,” adding that she hopes to use her previous training to provide psychological support to future arrivals from Ukraine.
“I always try to be optimistic. My background in psychology tells me that it’s probably just a defense mechanism, but I’ve also seen that people here are nice and very open to helping. I hope that I can also help”.