A rigid system can dash the career dreams of immigrants

The hopes of highly educated immigrants to find work in their own field may crumble under misunderstandings at the beginning of the integration process. When financial administration expert Maryam Fatollahi expressed her reluctance to complete, once again, a multi-year degree in her own field, it was recommended to her that she initiate studies to become a practical nurse.

Maryam Fatollahi
“Active networking, the drive to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and courageous decisions helped me advance in Finnish working life,” says Maryam Fatollahi.
Maryam Fatollahi’s nursing studies were interrupted when the National Health and Welfare Institute (THL) hired her for a fixed-term position. Her decision to take that position took place five years ago and she hasn’t regretted it for a single day.

“The project was extremely meaningful for me. Through the project, I found information about new opportunities, I learned more about Finnish society and I made contacts that have helped me advance in my working life,” states Fatollahi.

At the start of 2004, this volleyball instructor with a university degree in financial administration was living in Iran with her children, aged 1 and 6 years, and a self-employed husband. At that time, they had never even heard of a country named Finland. In spring of that year, the Christian family fled to Turkey, under pressure from the Islamic government, and in February 2006, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR found a place of asylum for them. The freezing cold of winter in Kirkkonummi was well underway when the family began the process of rebuilding their new lives in strange surroundings.

Back to school

“I assumed I would start working as quickly as possible. I thought I would be able to work, for example, at a bank or as an accountant,” Fatollahi tells.

Local integration advisors listed two alternatives. Fatollahi would need to complete a Finnish Bachelor’s degree in business administration in order to perform financial administration tasks in Finland. Fatollahi was surprised to hear that the other option presented to her was to switch fields and train to become a practical nurse. She began weighing her options.

“It seemed highly unrealistic that I would be able to complete a full university degree here. Even though the field was familiar, I was afraid I wouldn’t do well in my studies due to, for example, my lack of ICT experience, so I decided, instead, to apply for the matriculation exam-based practical nurse training at Omnia vocational institute.  Although the field of health care had never been my goal, I figured that the studies would anyway prove to be beneficial.”

A risk worth taking

Half way through her two-year training programme, Fatollahi heard about THL’s undertaking to find an employee with an understanding of immigration issues. Her teacher’s warnings about the risks related to a discontinuation of her studies fell on deaf ears once Fatollahi found out that she had been selected to fill the position.

"I felt that the risks were minor compared to the possibilities, because I knew I could always return to school at the end of the project. And that’s what I did. I graduated as a practical nurse from Amiedu vocational adult education centre in 2013. At the same time, I worked as a part-time research interviewer for Statistics Finland. My former boss at THL provided me with a recommendation for the job, which required skills in the Persian, Kurdish and Finnish languages, so it was definitely worth taking the risk!"

Fatollahi has also been trained to work as a peer counsellor. She was recruited by the mental health association of Espoo to lead a discussion group for immigrant women for a period of 18 months, which again opened new paths for her, this time in the field of NGOs.

“Through that opportunity, I found my current job as a counsellor for the Kurvi project run by the Finnish Refugee Council."

I found my path

When the Kurvi project ends in spring 2016, Fatollahi plans to apply to a university of applied sciences. Her aim is to work towards a career in either teaching or social work.

Her inspiring work experiences have changed her original plan to utilise her mathematical skills as a financial administration expert into a desire to draw on her competence as a sports trainer to encourage people and promote wellness in their daily lives.

“Last spring, I already applied to the degree programmes in social services at Diak and Metropolia, but I fell short a few points and wasn’t accepted,“ states a disappointed Fatollahi.

It’s difficult to recognise competence

According to Annika Forsander, Development Manager at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the successful process of integrating highly educated immigrants begins with the validation of existing degrees and a survey of working life qualifications.

Annika Forsander_HS
“There is a need for flexibility in language requirements. The communication skills needed by a chemical engineer carrying out quality certification are quite different than those of a teacher,” states Annika Forsander.
“There is a need for flexibility in language requirements. The communication skills needed by a chemical engineer carrying out quality certification are quite different than those of a teacher,” states Annika Forsander.

It’s not always easy, however, to determine a person’s competence. A degree title and level of education may formally correspond to Finnish conventions, but the content may differ fundamentally from our local systems.  

There is always a risk of misunderstandings and faulty conclusions when the parties involved in the discussion lack a common language. The challenge is especially great when someone comes into the country with no documentation on their former career or education.

“When someone is escaping war or political persecution, it is completely understandable that all their documents may have been destroyed,” explains Forsander.

Forsander continues by adding that no one knows how many highly educated asylum seekers Finland is currently housing at its reception centres.  

“I assume that approximately one fifth of the asylum seekers fall into this category, if we go according to the general education distribution of immigrants.”

Language requirements are too stringent

Forsander expresses her hope that the professionals working in integration services might take advantage of the services provided by the Centre of Expertise in Integration of Immigrants at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. The Centre of Expertise is a good resource for different public authorities, private service providers and NGOs.

"By developing the competencies of integration professionals, we can improve the accuracy of the initial survey process, but, alone, it is not enough to ensure the integration of highly educated immigrants into Finnish working life.”

According to Forsander, the system is hindered by bottlenecking that unnecessarily prevents even those who are motivated from moving forward in their lives. As an example, she refers to stringent language requirements that prevent immigrants from getting a foothold in many professions.

“There should be more flexibility in the language requirements, since the same level of Finnish ability is not required in all fields. A chemical engineer carrying out quality certification needs a different set of language skills than does, for example, a teacher,“ Forsander points out.

Another bottleneck that Forsander points out is the recognition of degrees and process of legalising professional practices. She feels that society wastes an enormous amount of available resources, for example, when doctors find themselves on the unemployment registers because the legalisation of their right to practice lacks the last exam to prove their clinical competence.

“This exam can only be taken at the University of Tampere. The lines are long and many fixed-term employments end before one’s turn comes up.”

  • Text: Paula Launonen
  • Photos: Paula Launonen and Outi Pyhäjärvi/HS

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