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Immigrant women to access working life in a more systematic and flexible way

The employment of immigrant women is made much easier by providing them with small-group training in their own native language. Expert Zainab Al-Ali from the City of Helsinki rehabilitative work activities has noticed this in her work.

Among other places, she has supported immigrant women in the ‘Women to Work’ project, where Somali, Arabic and Russian-speaking participants were instructed in their own native languages. Instruction was also available in the project in simple Finnish.

The participants stated that they had previously missed important information about the Finnish working life as a result of their lacking language skills. When they received information in a language they knew well, the basics of the duties and rights of employees became clear to them.

At the same time, they learnt valuable lessons about sending job applications directly online and how to put together a CV, among other things.

One of the participants, happy with the support she received, gave this feedback:

“I received a lot of help in finding a job. Hopefully, in the future, not only women but also men will be supported in such an effective way to integrate both into the working life and the Finnish culture more extensively.

I was accepted into the ‘Women to Work’ project and I am currently working in a primary school in apprenticeship training to become a school assistant. The busy days I spend with fifth- and sixth-graders develop my Finnish skills quickly and I can say I am now fairly proficient also in Finnish profanities.

I have commercial education from my native country, Morocco. When I arrived in Finland, I started to study the Finnish language actively.

I am very happy with my apprenticeship training. During the project, I actually told my instructor that immigrants should be given individual support from the very beginning and they should also have the opportunity to get acquainted with the working life while they are learning Finnish. The situation is different for all of us.

I enjoy spending time with children, and I like my job. My days are never the same and there are no dull moments as something is always going on.

I get a lot of support from teachers and other school staff. During my apprenticeship training, I have an appointed instructor who helps me, for example, in preparing my study plan.

In addition to the city employees, a Finnish friend has helped me settle into the country.

I also want to be able to help other women relocating here. I am involved in the work of the Nicehearts association and, in particular, its Neighbourhood Mothers activities, where women are encouraged to become actively involved in society.

Hidden skills

Al-Ali says that she has received a lot of praise particularly for job search services that are customised to suit the individual needs of every participant. For example, one of the participants needed help with writing her CV. In another case, the instructor was present as a silent support when the jobseeker made her first phone call to a potential employer.

Immigrants often have experience that may not be listed on their official resume. For example, someone who has raised five children of her own has a lot of hands-on experience with children. Many immigrant women are also excellent organisers.

Al-Ali has noticed that it is a good idea to talk to immigrants about employment and being a part of the Finnish society in general in small groups. It also seems that the participating women themselves like attending small groups of women as they have found them to be more encouraging than mixed groups.

“Of course, we have to keep in mind that men, too, could use individual guidance. They also have shortcomings in their knowledge of the Finnish working life.”

However, the ‘Women to Work’ project focused particularly on women, as the statistics show that immigrant women are less likely to gain employment than men.

Prejudice subsides

Al-Ali has noticed that employers’ prejudices against foreign-language speakers have subsided, especially in Helsinki. However, foreign cultures may still be shunned – especially if there are concerns that the workplace instructors’ linguistic skills may not be sufficient beyond Finnish.

On the other hand, immigrants may also think that they would not even be invited to interview because of their lack of language skills, and thus not even apply for suitable jobs.

“There are prejudices on both sides,” Al-Ali says.

A suitable level of Finnish language studies is sought for every jobseeker. They study Finnish also during their vocational studies with the added benefit that they also become familiar with the vocabulary associated with their work.

“Most of our clients have been in a rat race at one time or another. When they are looking for work, they get told they need to learn the language first. But those who have learnt the language are told that they must first gain work experience.”

Al-Ali points out that employees can also be recruited on fixed-term contracts. During this period, they employer and employee get to know each other and find out whether the employee is the right person for the job in question.

“Everyone learns by doing the job, no one starts at a new job and is perfect at it,” Al-Ali says.

Uncertainty about previous qualifications

Special Planner Taneli Kuusiholma of the city’s employment services shares Al-Ali’s observation: immigrant women often have skills that are not easily identified or verbalised.

Their employment is also hindered by their lack of courage. Poor language skills can also make them question how they would cope in working life.

“It should be noted that in many jobs, you do not need perfect language skills to be able to cope. In many cases, developing language skills are sufficient.”

The lessons learned from the ‘Women to Work’ project have certainly been utilised, but many old and proven ways of finding employment are also still used. For example, the highly popular speed dating events for employers and jobseekers are still arranged. Further training is organised in a flexible manner so that the jobseeker’s skills can be adapted to cater to their employment needs.

Employment services also have diverse linguistic and cultural expertise. In addition to Finnish, Swedish and English, service is also available in Russian, Arabic, Somali, French, Italian and Farsi. Issues can also be resolved in other languages with the help of an interpreter.

Many immigrant women have been looking after their children at home for a long time. Some of them have had no education beyond comprehensive school, while others are highly educated. Some have a wide social network, while others have few contacts outside their family.

Indeed, Project Coordinator Tanja Namrood emphasises that it is impossible to speak about unemployed immigrant women as a uniform group. Some of them are in need of diverse and comprehensive support, while others may only need help in individual matters, such as dealing with the authorities.

“Questions often also arise about the recognition and equivalence of qualifications. These processes are often long and expensive for the jobseeker, and from some countries it can be very difficult to obtain the necessary documents for recognition.”

The situation is quite complicated. For example, the diploma degree of nurses coming from outside the EU/EEA countries is not recognised at all, but they must redo their entire degree in Finland in order to obtain the professional rights of a Finnish nurse. Instead, bachelor-level degrees completed outside the EU/EEA area can be supplemented in accordance with Valvira regulations, albeit in a project-driven manner.

Although many immigrants benefit from being instructed in their own language, it is also good to active their Finnish skills alongside. Namrood says that in the ‘Women to Work’ project, they tried to make sure they also spoke Finnish during the digital teaching so that the participants would become used to it.

Encouragement and motivation

All three agree on the importance of trust. When a jobseeker feel encouraged to talk about her situation with her service manager, planning a suitable study and career path for her becomes much easier.

“Many of the unemployed immigrant women are used to staying at home. They need motivation and encouragement,” Namrood says.

When the women eventually find their courage and get a job, the impact on their lives is great. Their self-esteem becomes stronger and they also gain new elements to their daily lives as their circle of life expands.

Namrood hopes that immigrants’ affairs could be quickly sorted once they have moved here. Immigrants should be informed as soon as possible about the Finnish society, which encourages also women to develop their skills in working life.

Namrood feels that the best results are achieved when the people entering the working life have a person on their side who puts together the necessary service palette for them and directs them from one service to the next.

This is an excellent time for finding a job, as labour shortage has become increasingly severe in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and employers are beginning to show increasing interest in immigrant employees.

Namrood mentions bus operator Nobina as an example of a good employer. The company has extensive experience of a diverse working community, and in its employer policy, it stresses that it also encourages women to apply to work as bus drivers, among other positions.

Text: Kirsi Riipinen
Photo: Jussi Hellsten

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