Tag Archives: Belgium

Youth unemployment rears its ugly head – Part 2/2

<Disclaimer: This is part 2 of ‘Youth Unemployment Rears Its Ugly Head”. For part 1 click here>

Companies

Corporations and businesses are often portrayed as the boogeyman in this story, and it’s easy to see why. They need the right people for their job openings and are not afraid to turn someone down if they don’t meet the requirements. It’s a case of the bad overshadowing the good.

A lot of companies, such as the one where I work, give people (both young and old) plenty of opportunities and chances to develop their skills or gain more experience. When they hired me a couple of months ago, I was fresh out of school with no experience but they still gave me a chance and it has been great so far. My temporary contract is ending soon and I’m looking at opportunities for me to keep working for them.

That doesn’t take away the fact that a lot of companies can do more though. There is a basis of truth when people say that graduates without experience never get a chance. I believe that manager are starting to realize that they have to offer chances to young adults without experience. The mentality of ‘hiring skills’ is slowly fading away to make room for the ‘hire behavior’-mentality. Yes, hiring people without experience or the exact right set of skills for the job might cost you more but you’ll get so much more in return if you choose to invest in new (and old) human capital. Offering training programs will increase retention and motivate your workers.

Look, there isn’t a collective hive mind in the world of business that can instruct every manager and CEO to look into hiring and training adults, but I believe we could all benefit from having our noses pointed in that direction. Either way, I’m hopeful for the future.

Unemployment man!

Applicants

Of course, there are certain things job seekers can do that help increase their chances on today’s labour market. It would be wrong of me to only point the finger at the society, companies and government. I don’t want to blame anyone or point out faults, it’s just that recent graduates really have no idea how to behave on the labour market or in professional life. That is something they can change through a few simple actions.

First of all, a lot of resumes I see are just plain bad. Graduates often have a nice amount of skills and competences to build on through their years of education and traineeships, but they lack the finesse to write it down on paper and make a killer resume. Typos and a poor lay-out are all too common. Pair that with missing or incomplete information and you have all the ingredients needed to make a bad first impression. It’s essential to have all the right information on your resume and still have it look great, professional. It needs to stand out from the rest of them, or else you won’t get noticed so easily. Now, I’m not saying people should make weird, over-the-top video resumes like Barney Stinson from CBS’ ‘How I Met Your Mother’:

Nonetheless, more attention should be paid to a resume. Let’s segway into my next point (which ties back to employment agencies and schools). There should be a mandatory job application training, whether in school or through one of the related employment services. Job application training will teach you the most basic skills needed to help you with your first steps onto the labour market.

There’s a lot of things applicants can do themselves to find a job more easily, I’m not going to (and I can’t) sum them all up but just know that if you’re a job seeker that has trouble finding a job, look to yourself first instead of blaming it on someone else.

My own suggestions

Now that I’ve summed up some initiatives and actions taken by the major players in today’s job market it’s time to highlight some of my own ideas on how to tackle youth unemployment.

First of all, take risks. I see a lot of my peers applying for a job in their own field of education. That’s only natural, but when you’ve been unemployed for months and haven’t even come close to landing a job it’s time to be bolder. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard: “To boldly go where no one has gone before”. That’s a bit of an overstatement of course, but it gets my point across. And remember, your first job doesn’t have to be your dream job. It’s meant as a stepping stone to what you want out of your (professional) life.

Secondly, companies should offer more chances to young graduates like I’ve mentioned before. Yes, it might cost more, but you still have an unspoken duty to society and your company. Not giving young adults a chance is bad for business in the long run. So don’t always hire the skills you need, hire the right behavior and teach them the skills they need. There’s plenty of financial support to do that here in Belgium (and in other countries).

Whatever you might think of HR, I believe it is and always will be a team effort. It’s a joint effort both on a ‘small’ scale like in a company or on a large-scale between various actors (such as governments, companies, schools and work agencies) in a country, state or region. It would benefit all stakeholders if we could all try to work together more. Like a well-oiled machine, every cog has to do its job so that the next cog can do theirs. If every little wheel in the machine tries to do its own thing thinking that they are operating in a vacuum it won’t work properly. It’s not different, in my opinion, for tackling (youth) unemployment.

Conclusion

I realize that I might sound like an elitist jerk who criticizes everything, but I’m only trying to open your eyes to make you see that changes have to be made now.

 If you think about it, most of the measures I summed up in part 1 and part 2 of this article actually take steps in the direction of a more cooperative and flexible environment for job seekers of all ages and backgrounds. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something to admire and strive for. We all just have to work on it some more.

Do you know of any initiatives that your company, organisation, region or country is taking to tackle (youth) unemployment? Comment below and let me know.

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Youth unemployment rears its ugly head – Part 1/2

<Disclaimer: This article will be split into 2 parts, because of the sheer length of it>

Youth unemployment is the buzzword of the last month here in Belgium, and it’s easy to see why. The youth unemployment (Just to clarify: by youth unemployment I mean those under 25 years of age) rate keeps rising month after month to almost 18% of all job seekers between 18 and 25, which up to 19,8% higher than before the crisis. The economic crisis really hit the labor market hard (even more so in some regions of the country), and it doesn’t look good for the near future either.

Unemployment is, and always will be, a stain on society but even more so when we’re talking about youth unemployment. Being unemployed weighs heavy on the shoulders of young job seekers. Not only is our budding self-confidence undermined but the cost of this st(r)ain on our modern Western society is just unacceptable.

European Youth Unemployment

I have a great example by a young woman, Lauren,  who has been struggling to find a job for months now. She appeared on a documentary on national television and keeps a blog (in Dutch) about her progress and struggles, it’s eye-opening. I’ll translate a short excerpt from one of her posts:

“On New Year’s Eve I partied as if my life depended on it. Awakening from this frenzy was painful though; I still don’t have a job, no prospects and the end of my bank account is in sight. Go and live back with mom and dad? They didn’t look forward to that, and neither did I. Well then, I accepted a job in a restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurants for 6 years during my studies and I’m in the exact same spot now as I was 6 years ago when I didn’t know who Noam Chomsky was, how to analyze a 300-word sentence or where to find all the legislation in the European Union. As long as you can carry 3 plates at once …

I have a LinkedIn-profile. A lot of connections. But I can’t add where I work, what I do … who I am. I’m tired of sitting at home, so I go out often. But every time I meet someone new the first question I get asked is ‘What do you do for a living?’. And then I head home. Am I imagining this, or do people find me more interesting when I was still an unpaid intern? Our society defines your identity solely on the basis of your job. Those without a job, aren’t really part of the group. At first, you’re still who you were and what you studied but day after day and little by little you fade away.”

How can you not be moved by this? This is just one of many examples in today’s economic climate. I am sure Lauren will find a job because her case has been brought to everyone’s attention by the media. She received a lot of supportive comments on her blog, and I really do wish her the very best.

Strangely enough, unemployment for ages 50-60 is going down for the first time in years. This is partly due to the fact that these people have experience (something recent graduates sorely lack, but we’ll touch on that later) along with the measures and subsidies the government offers to try to keep older workers out of unemployment. This effect only amplifies the youth unemployment, which was not the desired effect of the measures taken by the government.

I think it’s pretty clear that drastic measures need to be taken if we want to avoid walking on the same path as Greece, Spain and some other countries in the world before us. Luckily, some initiatives are being taken. I’ll sum up some measures that I think are very positive, both on short-term as well as on long-term. I’ll split up these examples into several categories to keep everything organized. I’ll try and formulate some of my own ideas in part 2 as well as come to a short conclusion.

Governments

I talked about this in my previous article a little, and my point on this hasn’t changed. Luckily, our minister of education has all the right ideas. He’s been trying to reform secondary school and certain college directions (such as teachers). In essence, he’s trying to synchronize education and a professional life through making changes to education programs and embedding new technology in the classroom (think tablets, smartboards and better infrastructure in general). From my point of view, a crucial element to lowering youth unemployment because freshly graduated students are unprepared for the ‘real world’. I know I was, it was a pretty big culture shock the first few days and I have a better background than most through my education.

The sad part is that I fear most of his ideas will stay just that. It’s extremely hard, it seems, to change or alter anything in the slightest. Some of our laws, customs and systems are set in stone. It’s sad, but that’s the story of our society as it stands today. The second problem is the time limit that our minister is facing. He only has the couple of years in which he has to bring all his, admittedly good, ideas to fruition.

Aside from trying to reform the educational system the government is also taking different, and more concrete steps to lowering youth unemployment. For instance, the government is trying to increase the amount of internships available for young job seekers without a diploma. These internships are unpaid and companies who offer them have no obligation to hire the intern after the traineeship, but they do pave the way to finding a job suitable to their competences.

Governments (national, regional and international) all around the world are taking initiatives, but I often feel like they get stuck in a political tug-o’-war which limits the reaction time to certain (economical) events. The saying ‘too little, too late’ can often be applied here.

Schools

High schools, colleges and universities have a huge responsibility to our society and its future. Unfortunately, education is always trying to catch up to the work life. I have a hard time finding concrete examples of schools trying to better sync their programs to prepare students for a professional life. I’m guessing this is because of the very rigid system we have where schools have no independence to change their own curriculum (don’t worry, this is a good thing but not for this purpose).

I know from my own experience, though, that schools are thinking about preparing their students better through extra-curricular activities such as lectures, classes and visits to job fairs and companies. It’s a step in the right direction, but I guess we’ll see how it’ll work out in the long run.

Employment services (www.vdab.be & www.forem.be)

The first example of a great initiative are the ‘Individual professional educations’ (Individuele beroepsopleiding or IBO in Dutch)are one of the better measures taken in recent years. In essence, this is a contract between you and an employer where you will receive an education in the workplace during a few months. If you finish this education successfully, you automatically get a position in the company and you can’t be fired for a certain period of time (determined by law). A professional consultant handles all the administration so you don’t have to worry about anything. In 2012, almost 12000 positions were filled through this measure and we expect this number to climb to 17000 in 2014.

Second example is the very hands-on and individual approach that the employment services (and especially in Flanders) utilize. Every unemployed  job seeker has to register with the employment service, this allows them to invite, follow-up on and coach each person in their hunt for a job. If needed, re-orientation and guidance is offered (free of charge)to any who ask for it. You can literally walk into their office and ask to speak to a consultant who will help you on your way to finding a new job by helping you prepare for a job interview, showing you how and where to find suitable job openings. These are just a handful of services the agency offers.

The Belgian employment services do great work, but even with all these great initiatives I do have some complaints about them, but that’s a story for another time.

Do you know of any initiatives that your company, organisation, region or country is taking to tackle (youth) unemployment? Comment below and let me know.

Looking for part 2? Click here.

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Welcome, to the real world

With my recent first, somewhat awkward steps into my first real job I came to realize something that must have bothered a lot of people, both new employees and employers, before me. I’m talking about the very large gap between what we learn in school on the one hand and the skills that are needs to be successful in our first jobs on the other hand. For me personally my education was not at all adequate to prepare me for the tasks and responsibilities in my current position as an employee administrator. When I first started my job, there was a tsunami of information rushing towards me that threatened to overwhelm me, and I wondered why should didn’t prepare me for this. I could compare it to the movie, The Matrix, where our protagonist Neo has been living in a virtual world all his life without realizing it. He then gets torn out of that world and thrown into the real world which is darker and harsher, to which Morpheus says “Welcome, to the real world”. The resemblance is astounding.

Don’t get me wrong though, the direction(s)  followed and the school I went to are top-notch here in Belgium. The problem is that learning programs go out from the premise that the world is a perfect place and that everything operates in a vacuum. Of course, it does not. Unforeseen events both economical, personal and even meteorological events influence our daily routines and causes the course of all things, both large and small, to change.

Furthermore, our current education system provides a solid theoretical basis for us to build upon with experience gained through our first years in the workplace. But I fear we lack the most basic grasp of the world as it currently stands, the real world in which things change and go wrong. That, at least, is the case for us white-collar workers with our fancy Bachelors and Master degrees. No, the ones with a step ahead of us are blue-collar workers. They enjoyed a much more practical education with an adequate amount of hands-on experience which they gained by having teachers who have practical experience themselves. This is an advantage over being thought by people who start teaching fresh from school themselves, without any real experience.

Another advantage are the extended periods of traineeships trough which essential skills and behavioral competencies are acquired. Sure, there are traineeships for students in just about any direction but it’s only for a short period of time (usually a couple of weeks or months) during which a lot of students only get to do the most menial of tasks and thus, in a sense, operate in the same vacuum as they’ve been taught in school.

So, in essence I’m saying that we need to thoroughly rethink our education system on all levels. From primary school all the way to university. Just think about it, is learning Latin or Ancient Greek anything but a waste of time and effort? The course only exists to satisfy demanding parents and giving them the feeling that their child is somehow superior to others in their age group. That may put a little strong, but it’s how I experienced it. Learning a dead language does not offer any skills that can be used later in life. It’s the exact opposite because in reality it’s only setting these kids back further as opposed to their more ‘street-smart’ (for lack of a better term) counterparts.

Though not all is bad. Employers now realize now more than ever that extra education and coaching is needed for employees fresh out of the classroom. And governments are also realizing this, at last. In Belgium for example, we have a very clever and practical Minister of Education (Pascal Smet) who realizes that the current system is a relic of the past and is in dire need of an update.

I believe we should all strive for a better education system that provides the proper attitude and skill set for the real world. And that, is something everyone needs to work on. A better cooperation between companies, schools and governments is needed to pinpoint the problems and solve them with an eye to the future. In due time, I believe this will happen. I just hope it’ll be sooner, rather than later.

What are your thoughts on this? Is there a difference with your country or did you experience it differently? I’d like to hear about it, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line in the comment section below.

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The Bekaert Folly

The Bekaert Group, a fairly large company here in Belgium that primarily produces steel wire has been all over the news the last couple of days. The company recently found itself in quite the pickle. They have to lay off around 600 people this year.

Now, that in itself is not very rare in this day and age, it’s on the news almost daily now. There is something else to this particular story that absolutely baffled me though: Even though the company has to lay off hundreds of people the CEO, Bert De Graeve, will receive a 1,5 million Euro bonus on top of his not so inconsiderable ‘base salary’. The irony here is that Bert De Graeve won the award for ‘Manager of the year 2010’.

This also is common practice nowadays so I’ve heard of this before, but it’s still astounding to hear stories like that. Personally, I think that the CEO should relinquish his bonus, regardless of why he received it in the first place, in favor of the employees the company is planning to make redundant. For one, I doubt he really needs this money to keep up his current living standards (he has always been a wealthy man to my knowledge).

I believe that 1,5 million Euros (which is 1 960 000 USD at today’s exchange rate) would go a long way to financing extra training to prepare the people they’re firing for their re-entrance onto the job market.

But the preposterous part of this story doesn’t end there. As you may know, here in Belgium we work considerably less than in other European countries. The average age of people going in retirement is 55. Obviously, this is costing our social security truckloads of money (the system is based on a solidarity principle). The lower amount of new entrants in the job market and the higher amount of people retiring (the whole baby-boomer problem) is putting a lot of stress on our current social security system. In any case, we’ll all have to work longer and perhaps even pay more taxes to keep the system running (as if personnel costs aren’t high enough in Belgium already).

Our new government decided that we’ll all have to work longer than we do now (there are some exceptions) and the ‘early retirement’ system will be discouraged and partly dismantled. I believe this is only natural, I will want to retire at some point and receive my pension just like everyone else so we have to keep the system running. Now, this ‘early retirement’ is a measure where ‘older’ employees who get laid off receive an extra compensation on top of the usual unemployment pay. This extra allowance is paid by their last employer.

The unions at Bekaert, however, are now asking for an early retirement for all employees that get fired from ages 50 and up. That’s more than a decade before the normal, legal retirement age. The secretary of work has already rejected this motion and requested a complete plan for the lay-offs and says that early retirement will only be allowed as a last resort. I can only agree with her, it would be quite hypocritical of the government to increase the retirement age and discourage an early retirement only to consent to it for the Bekaert Group.

The ironic part here is that CEO Bert De Graeve said in an interview with ‘Humo‘ in 2010 that “even a small increase in the legal retirement age can’t even be discussed in this country. As soon as something goes wrong in a company, they immediately reach for the early retirement system – Godiva at age 52, Opel (2 companies that made a lot of employees redundant) at age 48. That shouldn’t be possible!”

Furthermore, I have no doubt that there are sufficient measures in place to help guide these people to a new job. We have an extensive outplacement policy that is compulsory for employees at or above the age of 45 if I’m not mistaken). This measure helps guide people to a new job through training and coaching by professionals.

And quite frankly, I see no reason to give these particular employees an early retirement. Most people getting laid off are hard-working, highly skilled technical workers which is something our job market is desperate for. And yes, it will require some effort and investment to organize education and training to get every worker up-to-date and ready to tackle new challenges in a new position at a new company. The cost will be so much lower than having them drift off into unemployment and early retirement. Think about it, the average life span of men in Belgium is around 78 years, so the people retiring at age 50 will cost the government and the active population (through taxes) 28 years of pension. That’s a huge sum of money that will no doubt exceed the investment and return-on-investment to get these people back to work.

Furthermore, we should all strive to get rid of this image Belgium has where people of ages 50 and up are considered old from a job market perspective. 50 isn’t old at all anymore, these people still have a lot to contribute to an organization.

As you can see, the whole Bekaert story is riddled with insane notions and it is beginning to look like quite the folly. I just wanted to direct your attention to some issues I have with this whole Bekaert issue. First of all, the preposterous notion that CEO’s should receive astronomical bonuses for the work they do. I’m not denying they don’t work hard, but they really shouldn’t receive such huge amounts of money as if they are the prophets of business, especially when the company is in such a bad position.

Secondly, the fact that when people get laid off they’re almost automatically driven into retirement which is costing every single one of us a lot of money. And lastly, the notion that people above 50 are just a hindrance and that they should make room for a younger, more flexible (and cheaper) workforce even though they still have so much to add to our society

In any case, it will be very interesting to see how this tale ends.

Niels Van Hellemont

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