International talent retention in Finland – are we asking the right questions?

Confronted with unprecedented socio-demographic changes, many countries across Europe and the world are struggling to find adequate workforce to sustain and develop their economies and find the resources to finance public services in the years to come.

Attracting and retaining talented international professionals across various industries is a key mechanism to address labor market shortages. Yet, few countries and cities can boast with being magnet places for international talent. Most countries are making efforts to put theory into practice in order to become more attractive to international talent. However, this is not enough.

Doctors Sorin Dan and Shah Rukh Shakeel visited the Talent Boost Summit 2019 event in Turku. Inspired by the event, they wrote this blog post about talent retention in Finland. Sorin and Shah Rukh both work in the Digitalisation Academy: Piloting and developing the Academy and creating a nationwide model (DA-PITO) in 2020.

Finland is a case in point – Nordic, stable, highly educated and innovative, yet relatively modest when it comes to talent attractiveness. What does a country such as Finland do wrong and how can it become more attractive to international students and professionals?

The retention of existing talent is particularly key in Finland – a country that educates thousands of students every year, many of whom decide to leave the country after graduation. According to the International Student Barometer, in 2018 there were 21,061 foreign students in Finland’s 14 universities and 23 universities of applied sciences. The vast majority of these foreign students (91%) were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of their education in Finland and 83% of them recommended the Finnish higher education system. Nonetheless, when it comes to finding support for employment and integration on the labor market, the situation was significantly different.

A relatively small percentage of the foreign students used the employment support services at their universities: 46% used student advisory services, 39% used the international office and only 18% made use of career and recruitment services. This gives rise to the following questions. How prepared are these services to cater to the needs of foreign students, and how efficient and effective are these services? Given that in Finland professional and personal networks are key to getting a job, it is important to ask whether university services facilitate foreign student employment via networks. Considering these facts there is no surprise that only 23% of foreign graduates planned to stay in Finland for long-term employment, depriving the country of needed talent.

How can Finland address this evident gap and position itself as an attractive Nordic talent hub? Steps in the right direction have already been taken and additional efforts are underway. In 2017, the Government of Finland launched Talent Boost – international talent boosting growth, a cross-sectoral government programme that has the ambition to integrate, coordinate and upscale the fragmented initiatives that existed before into a coherent policy. To retain talent, specific initiatives and actors have been activated – employment services, integration courses, explorer talent funding, language training, spouse programme, mentoring and matching.

The key question, however, is whether these efforts are enough to turn around Finland’s struggle with international talent. There are reasons to believe that these intentions and efforts help, but alone they are not enough. Finland needs to become more holistically attractive and welcoming on a daily basis for internationals to love living and working in Finland – it cannot only rely on its stable and peaceful socio-economic environment, and on its many lakes and forests. Internationals and their spouses and children need to feel that they belong to this country, that they comprehend and speak its languages and understand and identify with its culture.

This “soft” dimension of living in Finland is at least as important, if not more important, than economic and career benefits. Existing research has identified a number of reasons why talents choose to leave (Andersson & Solitander, 2014): lack of jobs for spouses, lack of social and professional integration, language barriers, practical problems and red tape and lack of career opportunities and low salary.


Andersson, M., & Solitander, A. (2014). Talent retention policy and initiatives in the Baltic Sea Region: a situation analysis. Swedish Institute.

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