After Microsoft's bruising Nokia job cuts, here's how it's helping ex-staff get back on their feet

Its takeover of Nokia's smartphone operation resulted in mass redundancies in Finland but Microsoft's scheme to help former workers set up new ventures is starting to produce results.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor

Microsoft has announced several series of redundancies involving former Nokia staff, and is using its Polku scheme to help them find new jobs.

Image: Stephen Brashear, Getty Images/Microsoft

Since Microsoft took over Nokia's mobile phone business in 2014, the company has conducted some of the biggest rounds of layoffs in recent Finnish history.

After cutting 3,350 jobs on Nokia's home turf over the past two years, Microsoft struck its final blow in May by announcing the end of mobile phone development in Finland and its intention to let a further 1,350 employees go by the end of June 2017.

However, Microsoft has taken measures to soften the blow. Last August it launched a nine-month support initiative called Polku, Finnish for 'path', to help those laid off in 2015 and has now expanded it to cover employees facing the latest redundancies.

"The aim of Polku is to help people get employed again, either by starting their own company and creating their own jobs in Finland or finding a new job outside Microsoft," Rilla Hiillos, director of the Polku scheme, tells ZDNet.

Similar to Nokia's Bridge program that ran between 2011 and 2014, which is estimated to have contributed to the creation of 400 startups in Finland, Polku provides not just retraining and recruitment services but also an entrepreneurial scheme.

This scheme, called Kipinä, 'a spark', offers coaching, lectures, equipment, and workspaces for those looking to start their own company. These startups can also be eligible for a grant of up to €60,000 ($67,000) per person or €240,000 ($26,900) per company depending on their business plan and employment potential.

According to Microsoft, 95 percent of those made redundant last year have participated in Polku in one way or another and about half of them have found new employment. Furthermore, 100 startups have been granted financial support.

So where are these companies now? Some have made a clear step away from mobile, such as sports data startup Quiske. The Helsinki-based company, founded in February, is developing an analytics tool for improving the performance of competitive rowers.

Quiske CEO Kristina Björnäs spent 12 years at Microsoft and Nokia and started the company with four likeminded partners from among her former colleagues.

"I'd have become an entrepreneur in any case. But without Microsoft's program I would have probably become a one-person company and focused on beekeeping or something. It's great to be able to do technology product development, which would not have been possible without Polku," Björknäs says.

Quiske cannot comment on the amount of grant money it received, but Björknäs says the funding enabled the company to do product development for a year. Its plans are to launch the first version of the sensor-based system in the last quarter of 2016.

Grundium is another Polku participant going full steam ahead. The imaging technology developer has grown from a team of three to 12 employees in its first year. For its CEO Mika Kuisma, it was Microsoft's announcement of 2,300 redundancies last year that proved the last straw, and he doesn't regret jumping ship.

"After that we decided, 'That's it'. Now is a good time to start doing something of our own," Kuisma says.

Kuisma and his co-founders Janne Haavisto and Kimmo Alanen all have long careers as directors in technology development at Microsoft and Nokia. In fact, Haavisto helped design Nokia's first camera phone while Alanen had a similar role in building its first GPS-enabled phones.

Now this experience is being applied in solving customer imaging, location, and sensing problems with both hardware and software development. Grundium has found its first clients in the manufacturing industry, in healthcare and wearables. But old wounds run deep, as the company has made a conscious decision to try and stay away from the mobile sector.

While Kuisma isn't surprised by Microsoft's latest redundancies, he is a fan of Polku. "As much as Microsoft has been badmouthed, Polku is something that hasn't been seen previously. Nokia had similar schemes, but this is an improved version by many notches," Kuisma says. "It definitely influenced our decision to start a company."

Microsoft estimates the companies started by Polku participants have created 250 new jobs so far, and believes that figure will double in the next year. It remains a small figure compared with the total number of Microsoft redundancies of about 4,700, but those who have benefited from it are happy to see less dependency on a big corporation.

"It offers a huge opportunity for Finland and the affected regions to take their whole economic structure in a healthier direction," Kuisma says.

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