Ricardo Simoes first came from Portugal to Helsinki in January 2008 for a job interview at the recently founded European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Although he had been in Norway as an exchange student, the winter darkness took him by surprise. After a successful interview, Simoes got the job and started a life as an expatriate.
– I ended up coming to Helsinki one month before my wife and children, to look for an apartment and find out about daycare and schools. At the time, ECHA had a relocation service, which was a big help. I also received help from Virka Info with daycare applications and other practical matters, says Simoes, who now works as a scientific officer in ECHA’s Risk Management Directorate.
ECHA is an exceptional work place because circa 70 percent of its approximately 600 employees are expatriates.
– We aim to employ people from all EU countries but naturally we choose the most suitable candidate for each job regardless of nationality, says Katariina Vehmola from ECHA’s Human Resources Unit.
– Because ECHA is such a multicultural and multilingual organization, we support our employees with the practical matters of integration and offer them Finnish classes and many spare time activities. We also have a spouses’ association, and our employees’ children can attend the Helsinki European School, says Vehmola.
For Ricardo Simoes’s wife, Susana Marto, this is the first experience of living in a foreign country. She stayed at home for the first couple of years with their daughter who was only one month old at the time of their relocation.
Once the little girl entered daycare, Marto started participating in expatriate activities and applying for jobs. With work experience in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, like her husband, she applied for three different positions at ECHA as well as jobs in Finnish companies. Finally, she got a job at ECHA.
– Our son attends the European School. Our daughter, unlike the rest of the family, learned Finnish at her daycare. She now attends the European School as well. I feel that Helsinki is a very safe place for kids. Already at the age of nine, our son takes the metro alone, and we feel comfortable about it, which we wouldn’t in Lisbon, Simoes says.
– There was no cultural shock really. European countries are overall quite similar. People behave more or less in the same way and the same products are sold in supermarkets. I feel that we’ve settled well for the duration of our work contracts. Once they end in 2020, we will probably move back to Portugal or somewhere else. I don’t know if staying in Helsinki would be a realistic option because of the language barrier, he adds.
Katariina Vehmola from the Human Resources Unit also sees the language challenge.
– Language is probably the biggest challenge for expatriates looking for work, at least in the beginning. Organizations whose working language is English are in the best position to utilize their skills, Vehmola says.
– However, the fact that most Finns speak English makes it easier for an expatriate to settle and to get support and help. That is a big plus, says Ricardo Simoes.
WHAT SHOULD AN EXPATRIATE KNOW BEFORE COMING TO FINLAND?
We asked Ahmed Khalil from Virka Info and Katariina Vehmola and Ricardo Simoes from the European Chemicals Agency for some tips.
- Learn the basics of the Finnish society and culture (e.g. where to turn for residence permits, registration, schools, daycare etc.). Discover the Infopankki website!
- Find out whether you are eligible for public health care and if not, what other options you have.
- Get to know the price level. The high rent level in the Helsinki area comes as a surprise to many expatriates.
- Find out where you can study Finnish (or Swedish).
- Find out what kinds of networks there are for expatriates, e.g. expatriate clubs or cultural institutions like Institut français de Finlande or Finland–Russia Society.
- Find out what kinds of hobbies are available.
Text: Anu Jussila