I moved to Belgium in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving behind my work in Warsaw at an international cultural organisation. Originally Ukrainian, I spent 10 years in Poland earning a master’s degree as well as the respect of my colleagues and collaborators. When I arrived in Ghent last year, everything looked different: I was facing the language barrier, a completely new culture, complicated governmental structure and on top of all this, my desire to build a home here.
From the beginning, I knew that I did not want to limit myself to expat communities: I wanted to be a part of the Dutch-speaking society and enjoy the local cultural and social life. Moreover, my goal was and is to work in Flanders.
In this article I will share with you my story and things I wish I knew at the beginning of my journey.
1. What you should know before speaking to VDAB and employment offices.
On a late October evening, I received an official confirmation from the VDAB (nl: Vlaamse Dienst voor Arbeidsbemiddeling en Beroepsopleiding, eng: Flemish Service for Employment and Vocational Training). VDAB has a shared database of vacancies and portfolios of job seekers. At 9:01am the next morning, I had at least 10 phone calls from different employment offices offering me all kinds of jobs.
During these calls, I was asked to give answers about what kind of job I was looking for, my experience, skills, preferred sector, my expectations, and so on. And it could’ve been all right if I were fluent in Dutch and knew exactly what my dream job should be, but I didn’t. I wanted to make a career switch from a cultural sector employee into something new, that would be both creative and intellectually challenging. But at that point in my process, I lacked self-awareness, and general knowledge about the local labour market and HR strategies.
On the VDAB website, I found several online tests which gave me guidance on where to start. Although everything was in Dutch, it was quite easy to get through it, with a little help from Google Translate . From that point, I found my direction and knew what I wanted to do. But still today, I am dreading these intrusive calls from employment offices.
2. Accepting counsel makes the difference.
Trends in the recruitment process are changing with the speed of light. In their search, recruiters are looking for a specific set of keywords and phrases to determine the suitable candidates. To maximise your chances at getting noticed, it is important to have someone who can proofread your cover letter and your CV, as well as to prepare you for a job interview. If you don’t have an HR coach in your close circle, that final editing should be done by a professional: in my case, Anja from VDAB improved the language-related issues in my job application. The communication with her was quick and smooth. This is another reason why being officially registered at VDAB and asking them for assistance was not a bad idea. Co-Searching organises free workshops several times a month, to write better cover letters, practise a job interview or optimise your LinkedIn profile for example. You can keep track of the workshop offer here or subscribe to the newsletter and receive the calendar straight in your email.
3. Integration programmes, recognition of the diploma: is it worth the trouble?
I was not alone in my job search and pursuit of integration with the local community: Aisha from Syria, with a degree in dentistry, and Emily from Canada, with an MA in cultural anthropology, also struggled with finding suitable work. Each of us followed the necessary steps by the IN-Gent (the local government organisation that helps newcomers integrate) and continue learning Dutch. Apart from giving a feeling of being welcomed and sharing general cultural nuances of everyday life in Flanders, the participants of the integration programme have their Dutch courses financed. IN-Gent also offers guidance and covers the fee of diploma/qualifications recognition. This process is organised by the NARIC (National Academic Recognition Information Centre). If you wish to skip the integration programme you can do this on your own by submitting the documents here. I did the recognition of my MA, as some employers might require it. Another friend of mine, after successfully passing a 5 stage-recruitment process, could not provide the recognised diploma and eventually was not hired. The integration programme and official recognition of your qualifications cost me a good deal of patience, but as soon as I was done, I was much closer to my goal.
4. Focus your search.
To learn about the requirements of potential employers, I set my LinkedIn account open for job alerts. The platform bumped me with ‘30+ new jobs’ every day. Screening them not only took me hours, but also ripped me off my self-confidence and hope for finding work. Too official, too corporate, too informal, coarse descriptions with unrealistic expectations and inconsistencies are only the tip of the iceberg we face when looking for a job there.
Registering at a specific job database of a well-studied organisation brought me relief. For instance, almost every Flemish local administration has its own database with job offers. Universities, corporations or international public institutions have their HR departments actively recruiting new employees. On average, job alerts come once per week, giving time to assess the proposal and chances to succeed.
5. Hit the road with mentoring programmes for foreigners.
Support from others is crucial. Moreover, monitoring the progress with a professional mentor is not only time efficient but also sheds light on new perspectives. In Flanders, there are several mentoring programmes for foreigners. Together with a competent HR employee you will be discovering how to strengthen your weaknesses and expose your achievements. Randstad, a multinational human resources consulting centre, offers the initiative Randstad risesmart, aimed to help people with higher education. Team up is another undertaking that helps foreigners searching for a job in Flanders.
6. Volunteering as a way out of your comfort zone.
Is volunteering the answer for gaining new working experience? Absolutely! After 8 years of employment and several internships behind me, I was convinced that any voluntary positions were in the past. However, becoming a volunteer at Co-Searching turns out to be a flexible way to realise my professional goals and to connect with people. I have a chance to raise questions that normally I would not. Moreover, it gives me tools to build my self-confidence skills in some unknown areas. And last but not least, it gives me a regular opportunity to practise Dutch.
You can find different volunteer positions at vrijwilligerswerk.be.
I shared with you the first steps that helped me, but by all means, do not stop here! My purpose is to convince you to experiment, to learn about yourself, to try new positions, to open up to other people with your own story. I believe that changing jobs is not a torture but a marathon into self-awesomeness, and re-defining yourself with a winning price — the best deal for you.