Guest blog by Freddie van Mierlo who has worked as a Consultant at Harwood Levitt Consulting, a boutique Public Affairs strategy consultancy based in Brussels, since 2015:
The Brussels labour market is famed for its competitive, multilingual, hyper-educated work force. Today, most people aspiring to work in Brussels start at the bottom, as opposed to parachuting in as a seconded official. For most, this means an internship or so-called ‘stage’, frequently at one of the official EU institutions, in the private sector or at an NGO.
Making a clear strategy before entering the Brussels labour market will help to reduce time spent in internships and avoid the scenario of jumping from one underpaid three-month internship to the next.
While the Commission, with its iconic Berlaymont building, draws applicants in their thousands, smaller companies and governmental institutions and can offer greater learning opportunities and may have greater hiring flexibility. For anyone interested in looking beyond the institutions, below are some learnings from the past three years on securing a place in the Brussels job market:
1. Look beyond the institutions
Don’t be drawn in by the prestige of names. Brussels is host to a huge range of companies, consultancies, law firms, political parties, NGOs, foundations and trade associations. Unlike the Commission, which is cutting back on hires, many of these are increasing their staff. Boutique consultancies and NGOs offer small teams and opportunities to rise through the ranks quickly. Remember, the most interesting ‘big work’ is often found in the unusual and surprising places.
2. Start early
Recruitment processes take a long time. If you are close to finishing your degree, or have an internship that ends in five months, start looking immediately. Recruitment processes (typically comprising of an application, test, phone interview and face-to-face interview) can take 2-3 months.
3. Commit to your internship
It might not be your dream career to work at the European Olive Oil Association for 20 years, but don’t be tempted to jump ship every two months. Better to commit to doing your work well and proving your capabilities. Prove you can be trusted with simple tasks and you will be given ever-greater responsibilities. In such a networked city building good relationships, wherever you work, pays off.
4. Assess your organisation’s finances
Belgian labour laws make it expensive for companies to hire someone. If you don’t think your potential employer has the cash to hire you, move on. Financial situations can change and your potential employer may find extra funding (eg. extra EU funding) so stay fully committed to your internship until you make your move.
5. Build a brand
A master’s in EU affairs is not enough. Everyone’s got one. Develop a brand for yourself that people will pay for. Most often this will take hard work, even outside of your day job: Are you someone who knows everyone else? Are you a political insider? Are you a born campaigner? Can you do graphic design? Are you known as someone who ‘gets it done’?
6. Be prepared to go home
Not everyone finds Brussels is the place for them. If you are prepared to walk away it will make you much stronger in negotiating the job market. A back up plan will give you confidence in interviews, and boost your negotiating power should you land a job. If you don’t develop a back up plan you are left with Hobson’s choice: accept an underpaid three-month internship, or miss your next rent payment. Moreover, there are job markets in other EU countries where competition is lower and demand is higher. Try Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris!