Home > Uncategorized > After Nokia Layoffs, Tech Workers in Finland Regroup and Refocus

After Nokia Layoffs, Tech Workers in Finland Regroup and Refocus

    • Kimmo Kalliola, a former Nokia employee, co-founded Quuppa, a company that provides precise indoor geolocation positioning.CreditUgri Touko Tapani Hujanen for The New York Times

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  Kimmo Kalliola knows the feeling that thousands of Finns have been dealing with over the last couple of years. He spent more than a decade working on geolocation positioning at Nokia, a highly technical job, but the Finnish tech giant hit hard times. In late 2012, Mr. Kalliola and 10,000 others at the company were laid off.

“I remember those sleepless nights,” said Mr. Kalliola, 42, who holds a Ph.D. in radio engineering.

Troubles at Nokia, once a source of national pride for Finns, have hardly slowed. Last year, the company sold its once-dominant mobile phone business to Microsoft. Within three months, Microsoft announced 18,000 layoffs, many of them in Finland. Further job cuts are now underway; Microsoft said it would reduce its Finnish work force by up to 2,300 employees, or roughly two-thirds of its local work force. Nokia now focuses almost entirely on its telecom infrastructure business.

This fast influx of unemployed tech workers like Mr. Kalliola into the Finnish economy has left policy makers with a headache — one that many of their counterparts elsewhere would most likely welcome.

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A smartphone made by Jolla, a Finnish company. Credit Touko Hujanen for The New York Times
With the skyrocketing growth of smartphones, apps and the mobile Internet, governments worldwide are angling to train and attract more highly skilled developers and engineers to meet the needs of their quickly digitizing economies. British politicians are investing heavily in computer training for teenagers, French policy makers are pushing coding as a potential solution to the country’s economic problems, and many Americans are rebooting their careers to tap into the growing number of tech-based jobs.

Yet Finland — whose population is roughly the same as Minnesota’s — has almost the opposite problem: a surplus of these workers, who were left jobless after a series of layoffs at Nokia and Microsoft. How to solve this problem has left policy makers and tech companies trying to turn Nokia’s and Microsoft’s pain into Finland’s gain.

Some workers in Finland may be struggling to find a good job, but many have already started their own businesses or have been recruited by tech companies moving to Finland. Mr. Kalliola, for example, started Quuppa, a company that provides precise indoor geolocation positioning, employing skills he learned and connections he made while at Nokia.

In part, the relatively soft landing among workers is a result of efforts by the Finnish government. Just as Nokia began to lay off its employees, politicians started providing government grants, entrepreneurship programs and other training to help the thousands of laid-off tech workers start their own companies. In addition, companies outside Finland have opened offices there, lured by the available workers.

Finnish politicians have also forced Nokia — and are putting pressure on Microsoft — to support former employees’ re-entry into the labor market. The help includes one-off grants for new business ventures and allowing former employees to use some of the companies’ intellectual property, like unwanted patents, almost free of charge.

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“Both Nokia and Microsoft have shown substantial responsibility in mitigating the impact of the layoffs,” Olli Rehn, the country’s minister of economic affairs, said in an interview. “Finland remains a stronghold for the global tech industry.”

Because of these efforts, the unemployment rate for the country’s tech workers is several percentage points lower than Finland’s current 10 percent unemployment rate, according to government officials and national statistics.

One of the individuals helping to lower this number is Risto Kivipuro, who was 58 and a lifelong Nokia employee when his team was scrapped in 2012.

A group of younger former colleagues persuaded him to join a fledgling company, Piceasoft, which is based on the mobile data-transferring technology they built at Nokia. Through a government-sponsored program, the small team licensed the software — almost free — from Nokia and received tens of thousands of dollars from their former employer to fund their start-up.

By tapping into the wide diaspora of former Nokia sales employees — many of whom had also recently lost their jobs — they have been able to sign up mobile operators as clients from Germany, across Central Europe and even Russia.

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Changeable covers for a Jolla smartphone. Jolla is developing a former Nokia mobile phone operating system to compete with the likes of Google’s Android. Credit Touko Hujanen for The New York Times
“At 58, no one was going to hire me,” Mr. Kivipuro said. “If I had known that running my own business was so fun, I would have left Nokia a lot earlier.”

Several of the Finnish cities most affected by the big job cuts have pushed to attract other tech companies, using the available local tech talent as a major selling point.

ARM Holdings, the British designer of digital products, and MediaTek, the Taiwanese semiconductor company, have recently set up research and development facilities in Oulu — in the far north of Finland — hiring teams of former Nokia engineers.

“If you need to find a complete development team, then there are probably people in Oulu who can do that for you,” said Juha Ala-Mursula, director of economic development for the city of Oulu, where Nokia manufacturing and design teams were severely hit by the company’s multiple rounds of layoffs.

“It’s sad to see what happened at Nokia,” he added. “But when a large tree falls, you need to plant a lot of small ones to take its place.”

Some Finnish investors and entrepreneurs, though, express doubts about former Nokia employees’ entrepreneurial skills. Creating a new company, they say, is far different than being a valuable worker at a large established one.

A new generation of Finnish entrepreneurs has already created some successful start-ups, particularly in mobile gaming — Rovio, the company behind Angry Birds, is based in Espoo, Finland. But these companies have often passed on hiring former Nokia employees in favor of recent tech graduates from local universities.

Others say former Nokia workers struggle with the fewer available resources after leaving a large international company. Antti Saarnio, chairman of Jolla — a Finnish company that is developing a former Nokia mobile phone operating system to compete with the likes of Google’s Android — says he often has to rein in his almost 100 developers (mostly former Nokia employees) in Helsinki when they ask for things beyond the realms of what is available at a start-up.

“Nokia wasn’t a school for entrepreneurship,” Mr. Saarnio said. “Most people have a lot to learn.”

Yet for Pekka Väyrynen, who after leaving Nokia co-founded an industrial design company that makes mobile devices, the chance to take control of his career outweighed any perks offered in his former corporate position.

“In the final days at Nokia, it took so long to make any decision,” said Mr. Väyrynen, 54, whose company, Creoir, recently helped design a smartphone for Marshall, the renowned amplifier manufacturer. “We’re now making our own choices. It’s exciting.”

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