Finnish society faces a colossal shortage in the labour market, especially within the tech and health sectors. Kristina Sweet, CEO of The Shortcut, explains how the Finnish NGO has found success in creating practical solutions for the mismatch of labour market demands and untapped talent in Finland. She also shares insight on why Finnish SMEs should consider diversifying their workforce as an urgent priority, and why policymakers should consider retaining talent, not just attracting it.
Massive structural changes prevail in Finland as the population is aging and birth rates are declining. This has led to major shortages in the labour market – a problem that does not loom somewhere in the distant future, but is already here.
The issue is particularly apparent in the technology industry: according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland, 53,000 new technology experts are needed in Finland by 2021 and over 10,000 new software developers in the coming 4 years. In tech companies the lack of skilled talent is already hindering growth.
The Shortcut, a Finnish NGO and the largest talent accelerator in the Nordics is one of the pioneering organisations making tangible results in alleviating the talent gap. They aim to do so by enforcing diversity in a broad sense, relating to age, gender, nationality, educational and professional backgrounds.
The Shortcut offers training by industry experts, with the goal to help people acquire relevant skills for working in the tech industry. Community gatherings, employability training and internships as well as access to accelerators, networks, coaches and mentors is also a part of The Shortcut’s offering.
“We still work with entrepreneurship, it’s at our core. Currently, most of our clients are looking for so-called traditional employment. We have reshaped services to support that“ Sweet explains.
In the wake of finding solutions to the big structural changes, Kristina Sweet stresses that Finland should not solely focus on bringing new workers into the country. A major focus should be on grasping the huge talent pool of skilled workers whose potential is currently still underused.
“The Uusimaa region alone has 10,000 highly skilled foreigners. We have a huge talent pool, and there’s a good size of them that are not in meaningful work. While we have big government initiatives to attract talent to Finland, at The Shortcut we are also pushing parallel for the talent that’s already here.“
Sweet herself has firsthand experience of the struggles of being a job seeker in Finland as a foreign citizen. With a background in working for multinational companies, she initially moved to Finland after being headhunted by KONE. After that, Sweet worked with Amcham Finland and later became an entrepreneur. She founded a farm-tech company which, like many other budding enterprises, unfortunately did not survive the harsh economic impact of Covid-19.
“I found myself unemployed. I was a single mom and all my savings had gone to my company. Experiencing the job market when I wasn’t at the top the game offered me a very different perspective.” Sweet recognises her privileges, coming from an English speaking western country. “Even though I had a lot of paths, I still struggled.”
Sweet found herself being overqualified for a lot of jobs, and on the other hand many companies weren’t willing to give her a chance because of lacking Finnish language skills. “In order to help people to integrate faster and better in Finland, language is one of the key issues, companies should consider investing in language development if this is the core reason why they are not hiring foreigners.”
Later, things worked out as The Shortcut approached Sweet. “My job now is really to find meaningful professional integration for foreigners and new skills for professional integration for Finns. It’s quite an unique position” Sweet concludes.
What’s standing in the way of connecting companies that are lacking skilled employees with skilled people not working?
“Apart from the language skills issue, I think it’s a cultural, hiring process issue. Somehow they’re not meeting each other” Sweet says. “Naturally, there are some cases where hiring managers are not interested in hiring foreigners. Still, our job is to take a really practical approach in connecting the dots and creating opportunities.“
As an example, Sweet mentions the technology spin The Shortcut implemented in its training scheme. “We noticed that we have a lot of marketing and communications people in our mix. We wondered how to move those people into the tech pool. We created digital marketing training programs to teach about AI and SEO, to shake things up a bit where there’s a mismatch between the needs of the tech sector and the more traditional marketing and comms skillset.”
In other words, The Shortcut is taking non-technical jobs and layering technology skills on top of them. “We are trying to evolve the workforce into technology based, even if it's a traditional skillset” Sweet explains. With five years worth of data, The Shortcut is able to detect gaps and mitigate them accordingly. “As an agile organisation we can react and change swiftly” Sweet states.
When looking at the evolution of the workforce, adding diversity is inevitable.
“Whether or not people are going to accept, it needs to happen'' Sweet says. According to her, discussion around diversity has improved tremendously in the past few years. “In my opinion, diversity and inclusion is happening in multinational companies and in the startup and growth community by nature.”
However, the huge sector of small and medium-sized businesses (SME) is not yet making the same progress.
“Until we make real headway in that silo, I don’t think we’re going to see a real shift” Sweet speculates. She believes that in some sense the Covid-19 pandemic may have allowed an opportunity to improve diversity in the SME world. “The situation has potentially shaken things up, as a lot of SMEs have been hurt and are now looking for new customers and markets. It might position them to consider diversity because they are looking for markets outside Finland and the Nordics.”
Diversifying could mean taking baby steps: Hiring someone to translate websites and other materials into English and thus creating a starting point for international growth. Sweet states that integrating Finnish SMEs into the diverse workforce would lead to major benefits: more investments, growth and jobs.
Kristina Sweet and The Shortcut are hoping to affect Finnish policymakers and the government with their admirable track record. “We have 50% employability rates from folks that are going through our programmes, which is pretty impressive.” Sweet muses.
According to her, finding the balance between attraction and retention of migrant workers should be in the minds of the policymakers. As Sweet has experienced on a personal level, integration is key in retaining migrant workers in Finland. “There’s a need for structural change: small tweaks that might make it easier for folks to integrate in a positive and meaningful way, so that they want to stay in Finland.” Sweet says. She mentions the importance of supporting spouses and families of migrant workers: “If the spouse is not happy, the length of stay is reduced”
Also, the foreign parent’s experience affects children who are born and raised here in Finland. If they’re not content, what happens to them when they turn 18? The threat of brain drain is substantial.”
Networking and making meaningful connections is at the heart of what The Shortcut does. Therefore, the tight-knit community of Maria 01 feels like a natural setting for the organisation. Sweet started in her role as CEO of The Shortcut in the middle of the pandemic.
“It’s been unusual, to say the least!” Sweet laughs. Sweet’s background as an entrepreneur meant that she was acquainted with Maria’s startup community. For Sweet, the first impression was that the place was only for younger entrepreneurs. “I assumed that it wasn’t a place for me because I was a seasoned entrepreneur. Which was not true at all!” Sweet recalls.
The ‘We’re in it together’ -mentality is something Sweet applauds about the Maria01 community. “There’s a lot of sharing of knowledge, and the intimate community feel is the essence of Maria for me.”
The sharing mentality hits home for Sweet, who seeks synergy in everything she does. “My motto is: everything I do is a win-win. No matter who’s involved, everybody needs to win equally” Sweet states.
She also takes part in monthly CEO meetings which Maria01 facilitates. “They’re really helpful. Right away you have a very intimate network and skillset at your fingertips” Sweet mentions.
When asked about remote working learnings, Sweet stresses the importance of humanity and playfulness. “We’re working hard to keep our digital heartbeat alive. It’s about staying aware that our colleagues are busy, but still keeping a personal touch, having room for that stuff that's missing right now.“
The Shortcut team is fInding the balance between physical and online presence. “We were quite lucky in terms of the pandemic, as we were able to capture a new audience by going online.” Sweet says. “Our new online community is something we are very proud of.”
When reflecting on future scenarios, Sweet has an optimistic view. “I hope that over time our job becomes easier because the society is more open and diverse. In five to six years I hope we don’t have the same structural problem at our hands.”
By creating practical, grass-root level win-win situations, Kristina Sweet and The Shortcut are paving the way to refurbishing Finnish labour market towards a more diverse and sustainable course.