By Freddie Van Mierlo. Freddie came to Brussels 2 years ago, starting with a 3-month internship with an NGO for environmental professionals, funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ Programme. He now works as a strategy consultant at Harwood Levitt Consulting.
The ‘Brussels Bubble’ labour market is characterised by a division between ‘old hands’ and ‘new arrivals’. ‘Old hands’ are people who came to Brussels in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, have established jobs and are often very well paid.
For the rest, those who came in the late 2000s and at the turn of the last decade, the labour market resembles an ‘intern roundabout’. Idealistic, but smart young people from across Europe, with 2 Masters degrees and 4 languages in the back pocket, come looking for the EU dream. Often their degree count includes a masters from the prestigious London School of Economics or College of Europe, acquired at great financial cost.
The purpose here is not to criticise the ‘old hands’ but to point out that we now live in a different labour market. No longer can you show up at the Commission, seconded from your national civil service, and land a permanent position with ease.
If you are studying at LSE, the College, Leiden or Sciences Po and want to move to Brussels, be aware that you too will face the intern roundabout. With luck, you will by-pass it altogether. Most people will, however, need to step onto it. The key is to have a strategy so you don’t stay on it for too long – and avoid living hand to mouth on perpetual 3-month internship cycles.
- Understand your job market: The first step to avoiding the intern roundabout is to recognise that Brussels is now a saturated job market. There are too many talented young people searching for too few jobs. The Commission ‘concours’ is but a microcosm of a much bigger competition for survival; Brussels is one giant concours.
- Be paid: You have 5 years of higher education under your belt. Although you lack work experience, you should be paid. You owe it to yourself and to your cohort not to accept unpaid work. Unpaid work will lower your self-esteem, self-confidence and signals to others that you are willing to be exploited. To your peers it destroys the integrity of the labour market, and leads to a race to the bottom that only the rich can survive.
- Start early: Recruitment processes take a long time. If you are a blue book trainee, you know you have 5 months to find a new job. Recruitment processes (typically comprising of an application, test, phone interview and face-to-face interview) can take 2-3 months. Avoid being left with an income gap and start applying early.
- Look beyond the institutions: The Commission is primarily a civil service. If it is your dream to work in a public bureaucracy, pursue it. But consider your options, and don’t be fooled 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 beefing up their staff. While you may not want to be a Policy Officer for the European Olive Oil Association, global names like Johnson & Johnson and Unilever may attract. Boutique consultancies and NGOs offer small teams and opportunities to rise through the ranks quickly.
- Commit to your employer: Congratulations, you scored a 6-month internship with a consultancy, or perhaps even a 1-year contract with a trade association. It may not be the Commission, but stop looking over the fence, thinking the grass is greener and commit to doing your work well. Your first internship is crucial if you are to get off the roundabout fast. It is your opportunity to prove your capabilities, even it is only monitoring, research, or making the tea. Prove you can be trusted with simple tasks and you will be given ever-greater responsibilities.
- Assess your organisation’s finances: Belgian tax and 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 (e.g. extra EU funding) so stay fully committed to your employer until you make your move.
- Build a brand: What is ‘brand you’? Your masters in EU affairs is not enough anymore. Everyone’s got one. Develop a brand for yourself that people will pay for. Most often this will take hard work, outside of your day job: Are you someone who knows everyone else? Are you a political insider? Are you a born campaigner?
- Finally, be prepared to go home: This may be tough to hear, but Brussels may not be the place for you. There are job markets in other EU countries where you will face less competition. If you are prepared to admit defeat 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 the roundabout, or miss your next rent payment.