Labor Migrants in the European Union: The Finnish Case


A review of Making it Abroad: Experiences of Highly Skilled Finns in the European Union Labour Markets, by Saara Koikkalainen.

Saara Koikkalainen grasps the topical subject of highly skilled migration in her excellent dissertation Making it abroad. Highly skilled migrants, defined in this study as persons holding tertiary educational degrees, form a group whose importance is further increasing in the global economy dependent on innovation and knowledge. This sociological study addresses not a single national context but a European labour market, which is particular due to the freedom of movement of workers. The qualitative study assesses the so called Eurostars’ subjective opinions and experiences of leaving Finland and finding work in the EU15 countries (15 Member States of the European Union before the enlargement of the Union in 2004).

In the Introduction, Koikkalainen locates her study in the European context and describes the increased mobility in the European Union as well as the history of Finnish migration. The freedom of movement for Europeans eases their migration in the European Union and offers them a chance to look for employment abroad. Migration from Finland to other European destinations has been on the rise since the early 1990s, and nowadays more educated Finns move abroad than come back. The wider context of the study is in the research on highly skilled migration, and the emerging field of European integration in sociological research.

Chapter 2 presents the theoretical background and research questions, which are covered individually in chapters 4-7. The theoretical background of the study addresses three topics: highly skilled migration, intra-European mobility, and cultural capital during migration. Traditional migration theories are revisited and the definition of skilled migrant pondered; the reviewed literature includes authors such as Sami Mahroum, Ronald Skeldon, Sam Scott, Louise Ryan, and John Mulholland. In the literature on intra-European mobility, Koikkalainen discusses works by authors such as Adrian Favell, Russell King, and Günther Schmid. Moreover, the study focuses on the transferability of cultural capital, a concept originally developed by Pierre Bourdieu. Koikkalainen justifies the use of the concept cultural capital in this research instead of using the concept of human capital: the value of cultural capital is dependent on the cultural context, which is the case when highly skilled migrants’ cultural capital is being re-evaluated and negotiated in the host country.

Data and methods of the study are presented in Chapter 3. The main data source is an Internet-based survey (2008, follow-up in 2010), which is a cost-effective method for locating respondents. The survey was advertised in multiple locations on the Internet, and respondents were also contacted via snowballing, various forums, and websites. In addition to the survey, 18 Finns living abroad were interviewed via Skype. The Finns studied in this research include consultants, ICT-workers, post-doctoral scholars and free-lance journalists, for example. They mainly lived in large EU countries, such as the UK, Germany, Belgium, France or Spain. The migrants were between the ages of 23 and 45. The method of analysis draws from the documentary method, which distinguishes between different types of knowledge.

The empirical findings are presented in the following four chapters. Chapter 4 answers the first empirical research question: Why do highly skilled Finns move abroad? First, Koikkalainen discusses the wider structural processes that promote mobility from Finland to other countries. These include two external, interrelated structures: economic and cultural globalisation, and the European free movement regime. Koikkalainen also points out that there is a European mobility industry promoting intra-European mobility: the European Union itself, and private companies as well as other actors. The survey reveals the respondents’ personal motivations for migration, which relate to work or studies, personal relationships, and a better quality of life. Koikkalainen stresses that the migration motives are often intertwined: therefore, simple categorisations of migrants should be avoided. The study shows that these Finns were not pushed to migrate, for example because of unemployment in the home country, but rather they took up the opportunity to migrate for reasons related to career, personal relationships or having foreign experience.

Chapter 5 addresses the second empirical research question: How do highly skilled Finns find work in the EU15 countries? The chapter analyses how higher education as institutionalised cultural capital is transferred as Finns migrate to other European countries. Koikkalainen compares the labour market positions the migrants had before and after migration and analyses the effort and the time it took for the participants to find a highly skilled job after migration. In Finland, most respondents had been employed quickly after graduation and were also satisfied with their career prospects in Finland. Interestingly, the study shows that Finns quickly find employment matching their degree also in other European countries: 76 per cent had found work within just weeks. Finns are also content with their new working situation, as many getter better salaries than in Finland and their qualifications are recognised.

Chapter 6 answers the third empirical research question: What kind of skills and qualifications ease or impede labour market access and what kinds of jobs do these Finns work in? The results show that four factors helped respondents to find a highly skilled job: language competence, the perceived positions of Finns as first class migrants, having career in international workplaces, and utilising their expertise in the Finnish and Swedish languages. Somewhat surprisingly, many Finns found that their embodied cultural capital, such as their mother tongue, had been more important in receiving a job than their official qualifications.

Chapter 7 discusses the theoretical research question: How does the cultural capital of the highly skilled migrants transfer across intra-European borders? Based on the empirical findings of the study, Koikkalainen offers three strategies highly skilled migrants can use to find work abroad that matches their qualifications: adaptation, distinction and re-orientation. The strategy of adaptation includes applying for jobs in ways that are relevant in the destination country, such as using the correct CV format or promoting certain skills. The strategy of distinction refers to highlighting one’s skills, education and experiences, such as knowing a rare language like Finnish. The strategy of re-orientation includes switching the working field or working as a freelancer, for example.

The final chapter presents the conclusions. The process of transferring the migrants’ skills across national borders is important for the individual but also for the receiving states – therefore, the findings of this study are highly valuable from both the individuals’ and the societal perspective. The study concludes that “the highly skilled intra-European migrants’ institutional cultural capital transfers across national borders rather smoothly, at least when the mobile individual originates from a Scandinavian country such as Finland” (p. 178). Also the embodied cultural capital usually transfers well. In the context of the migration literature, skilled intra-European migrants are the most privileged migrant group, as migration is an opportunity for them, not a forced choice. Koikkalainen also ponders whether aging and having a family poses challenges for the mobile lifestyle of these Eurostars.

Saara Koikkalainen’s timely and interesting study brings novel information on intra-European highly skilled migration. The work adds to our understanding of the human face of skilled migration by highlighting the migrants’ personal reports on their migration. Moreover, the study provides a novel perspective on skilled migration, as it focuses on less studied Finnish migrants. Also the wide geographical focus of the work expands current knowledge on the processes of highly skilled migration.

Elina Eskelä
PhD Candidate
Department of Geosciences and Geography
University of Helsinki

Primary Sources

Two online surveys conducted in 2008 (n=364) and in 2010 (n=194)
18 semi-structured interviews via Skype in 2011
Statistics Finland data on population

Dissertation Information

University of Lapland. 2013. 231 pp. Primary Advisor: Asko Suikkanen.

Image: Trains at Helsinki railway station. Photograph by Petri Koikkalainen, included with permission.

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