The construction business in Finland is strongly dependent on foreign workforce

The construction business in Finland is strongly dependent on foreign workforce – why almost 90 % of NJ Rebar employees are non-Finnish

According to Statistics Finland's Labour Force Survey, there were 217 000 unemployed in October 2016. Yet, many companies are suffering from labour shortage.

In the Helsinki metropolitan area more than 20 % of employees are non-Finns and the construction industry has become of the most international businesses in Finland. In public discussion, the proportion of foreign workers in construction is a hot topic and evokes strong emotions. Why can't Finnish companies, during high unemployment, hire from Finland and instead turn to other EU countries to find employees?

The answer is that they have to. The occupational barometer for short-term outlook for key occupations and workforce availability confirms that labour shortage in construction business is a reality.

NJ Rebar is one of the leading rebar service companies in Scandinavia. “We operate in Finland – yet most of our employees are Polish. Why? To me the key issue is the lack of competence and the right attitude” says Tanja Karonen, Managing Director of NJ Rebar.

Career and technical education has been steadily decreasing for decades and apprenticeships are almost non-existing. Competence requirements are also very different now than they were 20 years ago. Tanja explains this further: “In NJ Rebar we are constantly developing the industry, our processes and ways of working. In the core of this reformation is a more customer-oriented and lean business model, which sets new requirements for not just the management but for the employees, too”.

To succeed in the challenging steel reinforcement projects rebar experience and expertise is not enough. Especially those in the supervisor positions also need strong customer service, interpersonal and project management skills, as well as language skills. This combination is very demanding and talent is hard to find.

In addition to competence, attitude and commitment to work is of paramount importance. NJ Rebar works in the complex and demanding construction projects in close cooperation with an array of professionals from other fields: the designers, cast-in-contractors, engineering contractors and alike.

“Our work affects theirs and vice versa and this way of working requires a very disciplined and motivated attitude” Tanja explains and continues: “As a company, we are responsible for the quality of work and delivery according to the agreed schedule to our customers and partners. It is clear that we want to employ only the best professionals, who are able to demonstrate full commitment to their work”.

In the domestic labour market in Finland, the required competence profiles and the right attitude are hard to find. NJ Rebar is constantly hiring but for example during 2016 received only five job applications from Finland.

The above is the reason why NJ Rebar has been hiring skilled labour from the international labour market, mostly from Poland. “Not because we utilise Polish labour market, but because it’s the only solution to a situation where domestic employees can not be found” Tanja says.

Contrary to the common belief, hiring from outside Finland is not cheap. Compensation is the same for Finns and non-Finns and the salaries are based on the Finnish national collective agreements. NJ Rebar also invests heavily in staff well being such as training, recreation and alike. The orientation process of foreign workforce is also quite complex and involves interpreting, housing and other HR issues that require a lot of resources.

Another challenge is the high employee turnover related to the international mobility that is typical for the industry. Of the over 100 professionals that were hired to NJ Rebar during 2015 only 40 % are currently employed there.

“Temporary employments of few months are often preferred by the employees who leave family at home. They move abroad for a fixed period of time to earn for a particular purpose such as house or a car. Companies need to acknowledge and accept people’s motives. Many professionals prefer to work abroad only for a for certain period and then return home – before the next foreign assignment” Tanja says.

”Despite the challenges related to turnover and induction our experiences of Polish employees are very positive. They are extremely motivated, skilful and result-oriented and have collaborative problem solving attitude. And as the feedback from our customers about the quality of work is continuously very good, I have no complaints whatsoever” Tanja ends.

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