Finland Spoiled Me

I sit here today sitting on a couple of Master’s degrees looking towards the future. Occasionally I receive an e-mail or a call from a recruiter in the US. An excellent opportunity, good pay, and great benefits? If I still lived in the US, yes. But now, not so much. The fact is, Finland spoiled me.

A series of events.

Six years ago I graduated with a bachelor’s degree. I had taken the opportunity to complete my final year of studies in Finland, and headed back to the US to find a job. This was 2009, not far from the financial crisis that had hit the world. I naively believed that having an IT degree would still land me a job regardless of the economic climate. I was wrong.

I did keep busy, working as a “Network Specialist” for a severely understaffed school district in Kentucky. A position I kept on and off since high-school, giving me the resources to build my IT background. Continuing budget cuts and an increase in minimum wage meant that the school no longer could afford to pay me. My boss helped set me up for a job at a company installing cabling and hardware in schools throughout Eastern Kentucky.

The bad economy had raised the poverty level to the point that many school districts could now receive federal funding to upgrade their infrastructure. This meant that there would be plenty of overnight manual labor to do. During this time I kept applying to IT work around the country, and continued receiving rejection after rejection. Through my inquiries the reason for my rejections seemed to stem from not being a local candidate.

Even before the economic crisis, Eastern Kentucky had never been an easy place to find work. I knew I would have to move, but to where? After four months on the new job I told my boss I was off to Europe. He wished me luck and I was off on good terms.

It doesn’t sound like the ideal place to job search, Europe had been hit by the Economic crisis hard. My university exchange had led me to make dozens of contacts throughout Europe; this meant I had places to stay. The same could not be said of the US, where a jobless move to Dallas or New York could leave me in financial ruin within months. Cheapest flight I could find was to Dublin. So, Dublin-Amsterdam-Deventer-Utrecht-Tampere-Helsinki-Budapest-Pecz-London. Alas, No residence permit meant no work. No residence permit also meant I wouldn’t be staying around for long.

Not all was lost. While staying in Tampere a series of TV ads continually ran, pushing Finland’s free education in English to foreign students. For me, at that moment I saw it as the ticket to stay. I applied. I got in. I got a residence permit. You would think at this point a residence permit would mean I could work? Not quite. All those places that quickly rejected me due to my lack of a permit also didn’t seem too eager to hire once my paperwork was in order. In a well-educated country, a bachelor’s degree just doesn’t carry the same weight. Onward to study!

Get this. Before this point I had never considered getting a Master’s degree. Now I would be starting a degree at one of the world’s top Universities.  Had education not been free, it’s likely I would not have applied. Think about this. Think about how many people capable of furthering their education don’t due to the cost involved? Scholarships are available, I got through my bachelor’s on a few, but not everyone is lucky enough to get one. You can argue that student loans are also available, yet many capable students are simply not willing to take that kind of risk and debt. Free, on the other hand, is an easy decision.

The Benefits

I have no need to negotiating benefits here. Benefits in Finland are unreal. To start, I’m guaranteed about two month vacation and nearly unlimited sick leave no matter where I work.

As a foreign student in Finland you are required to have some minimum level of health insurance during your stay. Now, as an American taking out the cheapest plan possible, I had a plan that covered absolutely nothing. The type of plan that says, hey, we’ll probably maybe help you out once your bill reaches over 10,000 dollars. Within my first few months here I get in an accident, get thrown into the emergency room, cleaned-up, X-rayed, given a bit of medicine, and on my way home with a bill that will arrive in the mail. That bill? 400€. That is the full uninsured, unsubsidized cost. That cost then further reduced down to 35€ because I was a resident of Helsinki. It only gets better from there. Fast-forward to last year, I get a nice strong 240VAC electric shock and within minutes find myself laying down in an ambulance. No bill. I’ve lived and worked long enough here that I am now part of the system.

I sure did take advantage of my free education. In the US, decision are based on money. An extra year of study is another year of tuition. Not here. I could take all the time I wanted. I could study anything I wanted. I took a year of animation courses at Aalto University, and studied the politics and economics of Eastern Europe. My own study program even took me to study in Russia for a short time at Petrozavodsk State University. It took well over three years to complete a two year degree, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

But nothing is free. We all pay taxes. Yet it seems that people believe that here in Finland we pay a disproportionately higher tax then those in the US. That depends; US taxes are overly complicated. Federal, state, local taxes vary from place to place. What I can say with certainty is that I pay less income tax in Finland then I ever did in the US.  Not only that, but those taxes pay for the services I have grown to love. Healthcare, education, and social welfare.

Now for the difficult part. Finland has successfully made this a very attractive place to live. Still, many foreign students end up leaving back to their home countries.  Why? It’s notoriously difficult to find work here as a foreigner without the Finnish language. The lack of this language skill is often why I am rejected from positions. Not only is Finnish a difficult language to learn, it is incredibly easy to get by without it. It is rare to find someone who can’t speak English at a near native level. There are even several workplaces that operate entirely in English. Of course many may say that one should learn the language of the country they live in. That might be true, it is what I plan to do with my time now. Regardless of this point, it is important to note that the investment has been made, and Finland is losing many of its graduates.

It will be a challenge to move into the skilled job market here.  Personally, living in Finland has given me the opportunity to experience the highest quality living I have ever had. It’s not something I would like to give up.

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