Finland: Chronic labor shortage could decide election
Finland is suffering from a shortage of workers. This long-standing problem has flown under the radar, hidden by more prominent headlines, most notably the Nordic country's pivot towards NATO. But it could prove a key issue as Finns head to the polls for a general election on April 2 to decide who should steer the country next.
Since pandemic restrictions eased, the labor shortage has become even worse. In Uusimaa — the most populous region of Finland that includes the capital Helsinki — the share of unfilled vacancies has increased from 25% in 2019 to almost 60% in 2022.
Finland's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment recognizes 56 occupations as suffering from worker shortages. Health and social services account for the majority of the top 15 jobs lacking workers.
In a televised national debate in March, Finnish party leaders from across the political spectrum openly admitted that the country is currently operating without a well-functioning healthcare system, partly because there aren't enough nurses.
Higher wages needed to attract skilled workers
The problem extends to other low-wage occupations too, with restaurant workers and builders also on the government's labor shortage list.
For Nico Flinkman, a chef at Helsinki-based seafood restaurant Fisken pa Disken, it is not so much a lack of applicants that Finland suffers from, but rather the ready availability of skilled workers.
"You still have to train them up," said the Finnish-born chef, who himself acquired his culinary skills abroad in Lyon, France, before returning.
"Wages aren't that high and hours can be pretty long, so we really need a higher basic pay," he told DW. Finland doesn't have a statutory minimum wage, with employers and trade unions making collective agreements on sector-specific pay.
Immigration needed to fill gaps
The small town of Kankaanpää, some 274 kilometers (170 miles) west of Helsinki, has attracted over 100 Ukrainian refugees to study and work in factories assembling electrical equipment.
A lack of both Finnish- and English-language skills has hindered the integration of some Ukrainians. But the town's mayor is adamant that immigration offers a solution.
"Our own population development is such that the labor force is simply not enough, even if we were to succeed in guiding our own students and unemployed people into working life better," Kankaanpää Mayor Mika Hatanpää told DW.
There is a widely held consensus among Finland's major political parties that the country must open its doors to more foreign workers.
But Finland's right-wing parties see things differently.
"They say that if social security and unemployment benefits are too good, people won't have enough economic incentives to go to work," Merja Kauhanen, chief researcher at Finland's Labour Institute for Economic Research, told DW.
Finland's population on the decline
Around 20,000 people move to Finland for work every year. But demographic changes have many fearing that won't be enough. Finland's population is on track to start declining by 2034. The country has recorded less than 50,000 births per year for the last four years in a row.
"We are ageing. We don't get enough babies, we don't get enough immigration and people are getting older," Leena Pöntynen, director at lobbying group Technology Industries of Finland (TIF), told DW.
Finland's technology industry accounts for more than half of Finland's exports, with a total 317,000 tech workers.
"We still need another 130,000 new employees within the next 10 years," said Pöntynen.
Industry leaders argue for foreign talent
Innovative solutions are already afoot. American multinational firm Microsoft is offering a 90-day "micro-degree" intended to plug a shortage in technology experts and hopes the initiative may bring in some 100,000 professionals within five years. And Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark recently engaged in a Twitter spat with Finnish far-right leader Riikka Purra, after the politician claimed migrant workers were "economically detrimental."
Despite topping global happiness charts, Pöntynen believes Finland doesn't advertise itself enough to foreign workers.
The high quality of life, which is "as simple as fresh air, or the safety of the country, which lets 5-year-olds out by themselves," must be taken advantage of if Finland is to increase its skilled foreign workforce, she says.
Edited by: Kristie Pladson