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Delivering international talent to Helsinki’s tech ecosystem

Finland’s capital is the envy of the world as a tech hub, but it still faces challenges in attracting skills in a highly competitive global market

Helsinki’s need for thousands of new workers in its tech sector is being addressed by both industry and political protagonists, as the city looks to rectify existing talent shortages while simultaneously preparing for ambitious goals in the years ahead. 

To an extent, this drive will focus on organic domestic growth, leveraging the Finnish capital’s established reputation for gametech, in particular, to encourage future generations of local talent to join the cause. More broadly, though, following a year of remote working and blurred borders, Helsinki is targeting international talent as a way to embolden its tech army – and this is epitomised by the Helsinki Freedom, Home Delivered initiative launched this year. 

Helsinki Freedom, Home Delivered is a global first – a virtual gateway between local experts and talented individuals in the tech space around the world. Free guidance, education and advice come courtesy of local gaming experts, data analysts and talented techies, firstly to showcase the level of expertise that exists in the city, but also to promote Helsinki’s potential as a place to work and live for tech startup founders. 

Aimed at igniting the careers of international talent in a city that has already given the world SMS, 5G, Supercell and a host of gaming breakthroughs, the initiative is lauded by those already at the peak of the city’s tech realm. 

I think one of the great things about Helsinki’s tech ecosystem is that everyone acknowledges what’s good about it, but also what needs fixing,” said Miika Huttunen, CEO of Slush, the region’s most renowned tech event. “And while the city can certainly do more to make the process of entry smoother, the answer to both conflicting elements is the attraction of interesting, amazing talent from around the world. 

“Helsinki Freedom, Home Delivered is a great example of that acknowledgement because it reflects a common agenda and mutual acceptance that this is the best way forward for tech in this city.” 

Collaborative effort 

Slush has long been a meeting place and breeding ground for this mix of Finnish innovation and global interest, often fostering long-term relationships, business ideas and knowledge-sharing. Although Covid-19 sadly curtailed plans for the 2020 event, there is still hope that it can be reunited in person in 2021.  

But whether or not that happens, Huttunen affirms that Slush is the perfect representation of how talent can be attracted to Helsinki – but that effort is not exclusively Slush-driven. 

“It really needs to be a collaborative effort, such is the talent shortage that does exist in the city,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there has been a drastic increase in the number of startups, and many of them have become quite big. But it’s always a difficult balance to assess whether those startups are instantly encouraging more talent into the ecosystem, or whether we’re struggling to cater for the amount of talent needed for those businesses.” 

Huttunen cites a lack of product managers as a prime example of a shortfall that could affect the likelihood of some startups scaling in the future. With so many great innovations and ideas, more talent across a broader range of disciplines is needed to meet that demand. 

Fortunately, he believes this need can be met in a more diverse and flexible way than before, following a pandemic that has triggered the positive idea of flexible working and globalised teams. 

“First and foremost, we would obviously love to encourage people to come and live in Helsinki,” said Huttunen. “It has always been an attractive place to live and work, and that certainly hasn’t changed.  

“I would absolutely encourage international talent to move here, to either work for a Finnish startup, or even to work for a non-Finnish company, but as a part of the ecosystem. That is an under-discussed idea.” 

Period of transformation 

After recently being named the happiest country in the world – again – there is certainly no lack of appeal for Finland as a migration prospect. But there is, of course, option three, where talent from overseas can remain remote, but still become part of a Finnish tech business, and contribute to the ecosystem that way. 

Regardless of the approach, it is hoped that by reaffirming Helsinki’s place on the tech map, it can push on to become even bolder and more innovative in the years to come – a plea driven by the City of Helsinki itself. 

Its CDO, Mikko Rusama, said: “We want to be part of, and help drive, a big paradigm shift and transformation away from being reactive, to being proactive. This means serving citizens in a more personalised way, and that heavily involves the development of novel digital solutions. 

“We are in that gap in between at the moment, where we are trying to compete in a market for talent which contains so many great companies. But talent drives our future aspirations, so this competition can only strengthen the city and its people.”  

Rusama agrees that the pandemic has accelerated this transformation over the past year by opening up people’s minds to new ways of workingWorkers no longer need to be colocated in a physical space to be classed as contributors to a team or an ecosystem.  

When Helsinki’s recruitment target leading up to 2025 amounts to as many as 20,000 people to fill any ongoing shortage of talent, using a diversity of options and approaches is critical. 

‘Build it and they will come’

But this isn’t to say that the hard work to attract talent doesn’t need to come from within the city. It absolutely does, and is reflected in initiatives such as Helsinki Freedom, Home Delivered. 

In parallel, the establishment of Maria 01, a dedicated entrepreneurial community, will serve as another hub to display and market, and house, new talent.  

It will also be a place to generate what Huttunen maintains is Helsinki’s strongest weapon – the companies themselves. 

“I absolutely believe there is an element of ‘build it and they will come’,” he said. “Yes, we should be promoting events like Slush, and incentives like Helsinki Freedom, but we can’t lose sight of the ecosystem we’re building, too.  

“You only have to look at other Nordic countries to see that if the companies are strong and gain global traction, then the ecosystems benefit from that. The best way to encourage talent to our door is to leave that door open and make sure everything inside it is attractive to them.” 

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