Interview with Arja Martikainen, Business & Concept Owner at Barona IT
Marina: Hi Arja! Wonderful to have you as a Visiting Specialist in our blog to share experience and ideas on the cross-border recruitment and relocation issues. You have long experience in international recruitment in the IT industry. Could you share a little bit more on how did this interest start? And of course, please share with our readers a bit of your experience on that domain.
Arja: Let’s start a little bit further back in time. A lot of my family has emigrated to different countries in the world – Canada, Australia, Germany or other places. They have done very well in wherever they have ended up being, but this is also one reason why I have been always interested in how do people find their way into integrating in the local society and how do they find the way to success in the foreign place and in general internationalization has been a point of interest for me.
Then talking about career, it was in the 90s when I was working in a company named Andersen Consulting, where I worked in a project for Nokia Telecommunications. We worked on a big rollout project as Nokia was just growing in very fast tempo. This was also the time when Nokia was in general growing a lot and they needed talent. They were starting to work more and more with different consulting companies that could provide them with the necessary skills and naturally many of them were international. They started bringing in international talent to Finland. I ended up working in a team of 100 people where we had 18 different nationalities. I then was appointed as Relocation Assistant and my job responsibilities included both helping to the newcomers to handle their relocation issues as well as support in the teams who went out to the world and work on the rollout projects.
We had already experience in the relocation process and practicalities for the ones coming to Finland. The real challenge was with the employees sent abroad. Finding out the local authority processes and handling practicalities like accommodation, paying for it and so on was a real challenge. Processes were not so developed and sometimes we really had to figure out creative solutions to get something happening 😊.
Marina: Let’s talk about your experience in Digital Chocolate – one of the then major players on the gaming domain.
Arja: Yes, Digital Chocolate must be mentioned here as they were a trendsetter in the international talent recruitment field. When I started there in 2004, they had a total of 35 employees. The gaming industry was very small then. There was perhaps a couple of courses that were more focused on media assistants and that sort of training. Kajak in Kajaani was the first game development teaching initiative. So basically, during my first years there, we were sourcing candidates out of thin air. We started recruiting from abroad, for example from Poland, which was just joining the EU. The relocation process back then lasted quite long (up to 2-3 months) but in general, the process was quite simple. What was the main criteria for these candidates was to find the right profile of people, who would be genuinely into working in the gaming domain. We started getting quite good volume of both local but also international applicants. The company brand gained popularity and it was easier to get applicants. We then always evaluated for each recruited employee what the relocation process required – permit or EU registration. The company was operating in various locations (USA, Spain, India, Mexico) and at times we were estimating which country would be fastest in terms of immigration process and based on that we decided to which country to recruit the person. For example, after 9/11, the immigration process to Finland was faster than to the States. At the end we had more than 30 different nationalities and almost 30% of the employees were foreigners.
Read more about how to attract and retain international talent.
What companies recruit foreign talent
Arja: Yes, that’s right. My current customer base consists of customers, who are most interested in finding the right skill set, regardless of the nationality or local language skills. In some cases, the right skill set is simply not available in Finland and we turn to finding it outside of Finland. Sometimes I get requirements, in which it is preferred to find the candidate from Europe, if they want to move. But still, if they get a good profile from, let’s say Korea, and the technical skill set is good, they would take the application very seriously. This is especially easy with customers, who have already recruited foreign candidates and have some experience with relocating employees.
Marina: What kind of customers are already experienced in cross-border recruitment?
Arja: Game development companies, all mobile domain companies, then consulting companies. For some consulting companies, foreign language skills are even a great advantage.
Marina: How about the size?
Arja: There is a big range. The smallest clients I work with are 12-15 people companies.
Marina: And in those cases, it is not an issue that they don’t speak any Finnish?
Arja: If they work on a product that would be selling on the global market, then the working language doesn’t matter and, in some cases, working in Finnish may do more harm than be an advantage.
Read more about companies already experienced in cross-border recruitment from our Nordic Talent Shortage event.
Best practices to attract talent to Finland
Marina: In your experience, what are the best practices to attract talent to Finland?
Arja: Many of the applicants I work with, especially the ones with families and children, know about the Finnish education system. They may have had experience from other countries in Europe and aim to move here for the excellent education system.
The other common reason is safe, clean country, where things work, there’s equality, this kind of values. Many family people consider all these aspects and make a conscious decision to move here because of them.
Marina: So, many of the applicants that approach you have already made their own research and have made the decision to move here?
Arja: Yes, this is very often the case. Another big group of applicants I get is from spouses of people, who already moved here. The third one is students, who came to study and would like to find a job and stay in Finland. There is a great number of foreign students, who get well educated here but leave back to their home or other countries because they don’t find work here. It is nice to see, that companies start to be more aware of the issue we have with highly educated students leaving and are working towards employing them more.
Marina: Yes, indeed, I just read an article that up to 50% of foreign students leave Finland because they don’t find employment.
Arja: Yes, I have personal experience from when I lived and studied in France. I was deciding between staying and coming back home for a long time. It was a 50/50 decision whether I should stay there. Partly because of the country’s attitude towards foreigners but also because of the technological scene developments back then in Finland, I decided to move back here. It was in the mid-90s when Nokia was gaining popularity 😊
Marina: How about technology? Is it something that attracts candidates? I remember when I recruited for the mobile domain and Nokia projects, the technologies were attracting a lot of candidates. How about now?
Arja: Yes. Finland is a technological country. In addition, many know Finland for being a start-up hub and many are attracted by the fact that there aren’t any big outsourcing providers, where huge teams work on software that is going to the, let’s say the American or the Russian market. Many candidates say that are looking for opportunities where they can work on a product from scratch.
Marina: Are candidates more cautious, if the position is in a start-up compared to a big company?
Arja: Yes and no. Start-up people are their own breed, so to say. They usually understand well all the risks. But nowadays, even bigger companies are not as certain either. It might be that the project you were recruited for, even in a big consulting company, dries out or ends for one reason or another. And then many come to work in start-ups precisely because of the technology or the opportunity to create something from the beginning. Something that no one else has created thus far. Especially the gaming domain attracts a lot of applicants worldwide because of its reputation. Even though there are a few other gaming hubs in Europe, Finland has good reputation and we work on maintaining it.
Marina: What are your tips for employers? What are the things they should mention, for example in the job adds, during the recruitment process?
Arja: Well, based on what I have observed in a few companies who succeeded very well in this. They grew both in terms of employee numbers but also in turnover, of course. It is important that the home base is in good order. The company’s portrayed image should correspond very well to the reality. For example, one of my clients, a small company, had a very challenging recruitment situation two years back. Their website was not very clear, they were waiting for an acquisition to happen of which they were not able to talk publicly. But now they have done a very good job in integrating the two companies, communicating their image well to the outside world, they are following on what is happening in their domain, with the competition, they make excellent content. This helps a lot in the recruitment campaign. Candidates are much easier to get to at least start a discussion.
When does relocation come into the picture
Marina: How about relocation? Should relocation support be mentioned in the job add?
Arja: Yes, definitely. For example, now when we have received a lot of contacts through NorthStar, they always ask about the relocation support. Of course, it is offered, it may be handled by the employer or via a relocation supplier but yes, it is something that candidates need to be certain of, before they apply. I can say that when this is mentioned already in the job add, we get much higher quality applicants.
Marina: How about family related relocation issues? When do the candidates ask about this?
Arja: Normally, if the candidate has family coming along, they do ask about the relocation support provided to the family. Smaller companies typically cannot afford to provide much help. The bigger a company gets, the more they support the family members as well. What I usually do is try to encourage families to start planning the spouse integration early on. I ask them what do the spouses do and ask them to start checking what studying or other opportunities they can find in Finland. It is very hard to be in Finland without anything to do. They can be busy to some extend with settling in the kids, if they have any, but it is very boring and hard to live in here without any personal development path.
Marina: Would you recommend that the companies invest more into the relocation of the family.
Arja: Yes, definitely. I encourage them to do so. The least they can do is encourage applicants’ spouses to start looking for opportunities. Often the kids get settled fast via school or daycare circles, but the spouse need to be very pro-active in this process. What’s more, it is hard to support a family with only one person bringing in income.
Marina: Actually, one of our clients said that they start the recruitment process only when the candidate confirms that the relocation issue is discussed with the spouse and family and they are all on board with it.
Arja: I also have had many unfortunate cases. For example, recently one very brilliant candidate from Korea got an offer and only then we found out that he hadn’t discussed the possible move with his wife. Unfortunately, she put a stop on this. She didn’t speak any English and she was taking care of their household at home. It would have been quite challenging situation to her in Finland.
Marina: So, it is good to discuss this in the very beginning of the recruitment process.
Arja: Absolutely! I stress on this part in the beginning and try to find out what is the candidate’s motivation to relocate.
Challenges while receiving and on-boarding talent
Marina: What would you say is the greatest challenge for clients in terms of relocation process. Is it the residence permit or something else?
Arja: In terms of bureaucracy, we are lucky to live in Finland, where bureaucracy is at least straightforward. If it is said that you need these three documents, then it is those documents you need. Then when the persons arrive to the country, finding a matching apartment may be challenging due to variable expectations. We have always been able to find a good solution at the end.
Marina: What are the most often asked questions?
Arja: Well, I often need to explain quite many things and from the very beginning. For example, Finnish tax system, why do we pay tax, how does tax payment support pension and so on. Candidates often compare the net salary. In some other countries they get their salary under the table or they don’t pay any social contributions, so it is hard for them to understand why the net salary in Finland would be less than what they get in another country. But when you take the time to explain all the benefits of the system, they understand and are ok with it.
Another issue I spend time with their coaching in terms of the local working culture so that they manage to fit in well.
It is quite important to provide enough help but still not too much, so that the newcomers can integrate better and remain independent. They need to be able to handle their paperwork later (for example the permit extension).
Marina: What are the most common reasons why talent leaves?
Arja: For example, I had one case, in which the spouse of an employee was a dentist. She worked hard to learn Finnish language for two years, so that she could continue practicing in Finland. She had her own business in Brazil and wanted to set up one in Finland, however the process was so difficult and long that they started looking for other options. They left for Canada and she got to work right away over there. I think they are still there.
Marina: So, spouse integration is a common reason.
Arja: Yes, very common. Of course, sometimes it is just changing in the company.
Marina: What advice would you give to companies that are still thinking about recruiting international talent but are hesitant. Where should they start from?
Arja: Well, they should start by talking to a friend, someone who has already done that and has some experience to share. It is important to think of their own motivation, is there any prejudice – for example English language, is it just their assumption that it is an obstacle. So, sparring with colleagues from other companies could help a lot. But overall, there is a big mindset change that is hard. The top management should be on board and support this decision. Managers who have been brave to start this change say that they have been thanked for enriching the work environment with diversity. The teams are proud for driving such a change and are more confident in their skills as they realize that they could work in both English and Finnish. It is a success factor that also brings euros to the company.