International students are one of the most obvious solutions to Denmark’s growing need for skilled labour, but too many return home after graduating. If they’re to settle and build lives here, we need to be better at opening our arms—in our corporate culture as well as socially.

It’s not going too badly for Pleo. In just six years, the fintech company has gained over 17,000 business customers and earned itself a place among the unicorns, a.k.a. It is a startup with a valuation of over 1 billion dollars.

Pleo has international employees to thank for its growth. Today, 120 of the 165 based at Pleo’s headquarters in Copenhagen are international talents. And of the 75 developers working at the company, only a handful of them are Danes.

Which may explain why Pleo’s founder is disappointed by the Ministry of Education and Research’s statistic that almost half (47 percent) of international graduates from 2016 returned home within one year of graduating.

“It’s much easier to retain talent when they’ve moved to Denmark to study, and we need them here. We have a huge shortage of talent in Denmark, especially in the digital sector. Danish companies either have to fight over the limited Danish labour force, or we have to get much better at appealing to internationals, who are not only needed for their competences, they also contribute valuable perspectives unlike our own,” says Jeppe Rindom, CEO and co-founder of the Danish fintech Pleo.

The digital sector is particularly starved for talent. According to Statistics Denmark, 70 percent of Danish IT companies with more than 10 employees have difficulty recruiting the people they need.

“For many companies, something as banal as language can be the biggest barrier to attracting and retaining talent. Sure, you can write a press release in English that professes the company’s ‘international outlook’, and many companies have an English-speaking executive board, but among the staff, the language is still Danish. It’s such an advantage to start off—as we did—with a mix of nationalities, because then it’s a given that the company culture is open to non-Danes from the get-go,” Rindom explains.

Scandinavian students are more likely to return home

At Copenhagen Business School, the problem is nothing new. Even though Denmark is generally voted as one of the most popular places to work and study, we need to be better at making use of that popularity, according to Martin Jes Iversen, Associate Professor and Vice Dean of International Education at CBS.

“It helps that foreign students generally think that Denmark is a great place to live, and they’re right about that. But we struggle when it comes to language and culture. We need to have a better setup when it comes to the integration of international talent, ensuring that they can go from university to company without too many obstacles,” he says.

One surprising trend is that the further an international student has moved to come to Denmark, the more likely it is they’ll stay. On the other hand, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns are much more likely to run straight back to their homelands after graduating, probably because Denmark is not as attractive a country to them.

And that is precisely why cultural inclusion is so important, says Iversen.

“All our statistics show that long internships and mentoring schemes work. International graduates simply get more time in the country and begin to grasp why we hold Christmas lunches, how to read our subtle privacy codes and why you sometimes get stuck drinking beer with your colleagues after work,” he says.

Social life matters most

The outlook at IT University of Copenhagen is a similar one, where a total of 60 percent of international graduates from 2016 stayed and worked in Denmark for longer than a year post graduation. This slightly higher-than-average number can be attributed to the particularly high demand for labour in the digital and tech sectors, explains Trine Møller, Career Counselor and Alumni Coordinator at ITU. But she agrees that if Denmark is to retain more international talent, we have to do a better job of making our workplaces international-friendly.

“One thing I often hear is that it can be lonely to be one of the only international employees at a Danish company. It’s not just the language itself that is a barrier, but all of the unwritten cultural rules we have. Companies need to be better at explaining these rules, as well as being open to changing them, based on who their employees are. We have to be able to see ourselves as foreigners see us from the outside,” says Møller.

Trine Møller, Career Counselor and Alumni Coordinator at ITU.

But Møller also admits that company culture and integration schemes are nothing compared to the social element of integration.

“The most important thing is that internationals have a circle of friends and a life outside of work. We often joke that the best way to improve the retention rate would be to start a dating service. If we can give them good working conditions, including our famous flat hierarchies, good career development opportunities, welfare, a work-life balance and a social life, then we’re on the right track.”

What could a solution look like? Instead of just declaring that companies need to be more internationally minded, a better approach might be to demonstrate how companies could really benefit from international talent.

“Companies need to be able to see the benefit based on their own needs. Fancy phases like ‘international outlook’ aren’t going to cut it. But if we focus on specific aspects of how any one company could benefit—by way of language, international partnerships, etc—those who have a real interest in hiring for growth should be convinced enough to do what it takes to attract international talent,” Iversen concludes.

This article is a part of the magazine ‘From University to Unicorn 2021’. You can read the full magazine here.