In late February, Alli Ottarsson will step out of a plane into the dense snow of the Finnish winter for a 90-day experience in an alternate reality, test-driving what his life could be like if he lived in Helsinki.With him will be his fiancée and four-year-old daughter, as well as 14 other professionals selected to participate in a radical new scheme aimed at luring tech workers to the Finnish capital.A staggering 5,330 people from around the world applied late last year for the free 90 Day Finn relocation package offered by Helsinki Business Hub.The international trade and investment promotion agency will provide the 15 winners with airport pickup, orientation, cultural training, Finnish experiences, remote work facilities, introductions to local business networks and all the documentation needed for a three-month stay.
They’ll also receive arrangements for housing and any school or daycare needed for accompanying children.Expenses like airfare and lodging are not provided – it’s more of a concierge service – but if the test run goes well, all can get assistance applying for permanent residency.
Ottarsson, a video-games investor, says he applied because he’d become frustrated with the ballooning coronavirus numbers in Los Angeles, where he lives.He hopes to use the welcome package to explore investment opportunities in Helsinki’s booming gaming industry as well as open up the family’s horizons and gain contacts while riding out the pandemic in one of Europe’s least-affected cities .“My fiancée works in business as well, so we see this as an opportunity to really expand our network in the region,” he says.Ottarsson is also “very keen on the cohort that’s going”, noting that it’s almost like an adult version of summer camp or study abroad.
“It’s something to break out of your normal social circles and meet new people.” There’s lots to enjoy about life in Helsinki – even if it’s a bit cold (Credit: Alamy) The 90 Day Finn initiative has generated lots of attention in recent weeks, helping to put Helsinki firmly on the map for global workers.While only 15 winning candidates will ultimately make the trip, the city hopes the publicity generated by the campaign can lure even more people to help fill a talent gap and fuel its growing tech sector.
If it works, relocation packages like this could become a valuable new tool in the competitive race to win over foreign professionals.‘We felt the time was right to do something different’ Finland may have given the world open-source operating system Linux, telecommunications giant Nokia and even the SMS technology that powers text messaging, but it’s struggled to build a workforce to keep up with growing demand.“We have a good schooling system and educate a lot of engineers and coders, but the demand is so big that it’s simply not enough,” explains Johanna Huurre, of Helsinki Business Hub.“Also, we don’t believe that all the wisdom lives in Finland; having diverse international talent will help our best ideas fly globally.” She says that, because Finland is not so top of mind for global talent, “we felt the time was right to do something different” that would offer a practical way to test-drive Helsinki.“When people come, they tend to stay, so we needed to find an attractive way to get them here.” We don’t believe that all the wisdom lives in Finland – Johanna Huurre The fact that Helsinki is a city of fewer than one million people in a country of less than six million may put it at a disadvantage, despite having a start-up ecosystem that’s now valued at $5.8bn (£4.2bn).On the latest Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), for example, the city ranks 31st in the world – well behind even close neighbours like Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Felipe Monteiro, an INSEAD professor and academic director of the GTCI, notes that it falls lower on the list because it’s a smaller city with less global influence, less tourist traffic and fewer headquarters of multinationals.Joonas Halla, head of talent boost at Business Finland, notes that industries seeking workers at the moment include cybersecurity, space tech, health tech, gaming and quantum computing.
Those seeking jobs in, for example, data and analytics or software engineering can expect to earn up to €4,113 (£3,662; $4,960) per month with low competition for roles.
‘Functioning society where things work’ Huurre says she was completely overwhelmed by both the number and quality of the candidates for the 90 Day Finn programme, 30% of whom were North American, with the rest scattered across every continent.The majority (70%) were remote workers, while 16% were entrepreneurs, and 12% sought direct employment in Helsinki.There were also 60 investors, including Ottarsson.
Helsinki Business Hub has now created a database where unsuccessful applicants can leave their profiles for local executives to review.After all, the aim is not just to get 15 people; Helsinki wants as many qualified candidates as possible to relocate.Video-games investor Alli Ottarsson is among the 15 workers selected to test-drive life in the Finnish capital (Credit: Colin Young-Wolff) Though open to citizens of any country, the programme made no secret of its main target: tech workers from the US West Coast, who may be fed up with poor management of the pandemic and a divisive political landscape.Halla says the Nordic social welfare system – with its generous parental leave and universal healthcare – has also proved to be a major selling point to convince workers from sunnier climes like California to make the move to the far north.“Obviously, if you only want hot and sunny, Finland might not be the place for you, but if you like the four seasons and want to have a functioning society where things really work, Finland is a great option,” he says.“For us, we want to keep our Nordic welfare state model going and we need talent and we need investments for that to happen.” Harinder Jaswal, a biochemist and regulatory-affairs specialist, was lured from Silicon Valley to the Helsinki area in 2019 by a remote-work opportunity and the chance for a better balance between advancing in her career and raising three young children in their father’s homeland.
“They understand here that your family is important, that time off is important,” she says.“Back in the US, I was always stressed rushing to meetings and rushing home to take the kids to soccer; I didn’t have much flexibility.” As a woman of colour, she says she was also feeling less welcome in Trump’s America.
That, coupled with increased wildfires, growing traffic and an under-resourced school system, made her certain it was time to leave Silicon Valley and seek opportunities elsewhere.Obviously, if you only want hot and sunny, Finland might not be the place for you – Joonas Halla The move to Espoo, just outside Helsinki, has been “wonderful”, she says, but it’s also had its challenges.The low temperatures took some getting used to, and though Finland often ranks as the happiest country in the world , Jaswal says Finnish culture can take a while to crack.
“People are not as extroverted or social as back home,” she explains.“As an American, you can feel really loud sometimes, but Finns are just quieter and value their personal space.” ‘Proof of concept’ Felipe Monteiro of Insead believes the 90 Day Finn programme is an intriguing example of how smaller hubs can think outside the box to compete with the San Franciscos, Londons and Singapores of the world.“The mere fact of doing an experiment like this is, to me, a good signal because it shows their agility,” he explains.But is it simply great marketing, or does it have legs? “That will depend on whether they’re just doing this to get some visibility or if they’ll use this experience to learn from the data in terms of what kind of people apply, what kind of careers are attracted, and who comes and stays.” Of course, coming and staying are two very different things.Ottarsson, the video-games investor, is about to board a plane to Helsinki, but he hasn’t purchased a one-way ticket.
“Moving outside of the US is certainly a possibility that our family has discussed, but it’s not the agenda,” he explains.“I think this is more like a test bed for us to see what it would feel like to be in a place where we don’t really have a network.” Ottarsson may be doing a test, but Monteiro says Helsinki is, too.
“If they do this right, it could be like a proof of concept that helps them design more effective relocation plans and attract talent willing to stay for longer,” he says.Other cities, he adds, would be wise to take note..