This race for international talent in the technology sector is ongoing in Europe — even in places like Germany and Sweden that are already home to some of the most valuable tech companies on the continent.
Partly, it’s due to a growing skills gap. Other reasons that companies, cities, and countries are trying so hard to attract global talent: ageing populations at home, a need for tools to compete globally and a desire for diverse talent.
All of this contributes to the why behind the race for global talent, but the how is a different story. How do you get the top talent in the world, from places like Harvard, Stanford, XLRI, IIMs and MIT, to move to Lisbon, Helsinki, or Stockholm, where life is expensive and the language difficult to learn? As an Indian who has worked in Finland for over a decade, I believe that my adopted home and some of its neighbours provide some blueprints for a possible solution. There’s no reason why smaller European tech hubs can’t attract some of the world’s best.
Vision, leadership, and retention
Finland is home to Nokia, which was well ahead of its time in international hiring and realised quite early the importance of global talent to succeed. When I first moved to Finland with Nokia in 2008, there were very few employers who provided good relocation support. On the other hand, Nokia’s relocation assistance included fully-paid accommodation (for 24 months), international tax assistance, home vs host country tax benefit, a stipend for home travel, family support, language training, integration programs, and more. They went beyond what was needed to attract the best talent.
Nokia’s choice to extend me a job and help me relocate and integrate into my new home was a win for Finland as well. I’ve stayed and worked at numerous tech companies since then.
Companies should look beyond just tech talent as well. Engineers and developers build products, and having a solid product is a great starting point, but to unlock that product’s potential you need global customers, partners, and investors – and those things require business leadership. Unlike Nokia, most companies come to this realization quite late. They go to great lengths to attract top talent for technical roles, but somehow miss the importance of attracting equally great talent in marketing, sales, procurement, and other departments. Often, language is created as an entry barrier.
Arguably, it should be the other way around; if you want to succeed globally, if you want to build an international company, you desperately need the kind of business and cultural innovation that directly results from having a diverse team at the helm. Some recent examples of Finnish tech companies who have successfully done this are Supercell and Wolt.
The public sector's role
But, the task of creating a compelling value composition for international talent doesn’t lie only with the private sector. Government policies and social institutions need to be aligned with the goal, and smaller municipalities can benefit by joining forces to promote a clear and unified message to job-seekers.
In Finland, Helsinki Business Hub, the capital’s international trade and investment promotion agency, is currently running a program called 90 Day Finn, supporting 14 participants and their families for the length of a travel visa while they experience Finland, network with local professionals and pursue business goals. The city of Espoo, Finland recently incorporated English as a language of service (here is the compelling rationale), Mayor of the city of Helsinki recently suggested making it an English speaking city, and the country also offers a startup permit for potential entrepreneur-immigrants.
In the Baltics, Estonia has adopted a radical approach to economic growth in the form of e-residency, soon to be followed by a number of other countries which aim to attract remote workers.
In addition to making English as an additional working language, like Espoo has done, any number of legislative measures can assist in the talent race:
- Accrediting of international education through an official system
- More international schools
- More tax holidays and employment incentives
- Faster processing of work permits
- Making it easier for spouses to find jobs, educational courses and other support
- Adopt innovative solutions to overcome language barrier – central translation service?
Not all of these are feasible in every city or country, but they don’t need to be. A few changes can go a long way.
This is an area in which companies and governments share a responsibility to strengthen the bonds of human and social capital. More training programs, tax and employment incentives, and contingent benefit packages are a few areas of opportunity in which enterprise and legislation can work together to create a “stickier” environment for global talent.
Countries need to understand that trying to attract top talent needs to start even before people enter the workforce. Students who integrate with the local community in university are more likely to stay and work or found companies. Of the countries with the largest shares of international students relative to their total higher education populations, only nine in the top 17 are European. This could be interpreted to mean that places like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (the UK rounds out the top four) market themselves more effectively to the world’s brightest and most capable learners.
Finally, the race to attract international talent can’t forget the incredible domestic talent at home. European countries do not have a significant problem with brain drain compared to other countries. But I have seen many talented Finns take their skills abroad in search of better employment opportunities.
Leaps and bounds
The pandemic has upped the stakes in the race for global talent. Extending open arms to employees and business leaders of all genders, ethnicities, and nationalities isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s an economic one. The small tech hubs that act now, will remain competitive in the future. Others will simply be left behind.