Every once in a while I find myself sitting in Place Lux, drinking coffee with someone, in order to share my limited knowledge about how to build a career in Brussels. (I always pay for the coffee as an apology for my less than stellar insights.) These new arrivals are usually introduced via a friend or colleague, who has selected me on the basis (I assume) that people with more successful careers don’t have time to give free career advice.
I usually try to make time for such meetings, for several reasons.
1) I well remember trying to work out how to find a job in Brussels myself a dozen years ago, and wishing I could find someone to help me work out this strange place
2) It’s always nice to meet new, eager faces on the Brussels scene
3) The chances are that whomever I’m meeting will end up with a much more glamorous career than me; they can buy the coffee when they become a European Commissioner or MEP.
In order to avoid disappointment for future seekers of wisdom, I thought I’d set out the limits of my insights here, starting with an overview of the jobs market.
I should start by saying that I don’t offer advice on obtaining employment within the EU Institutions since a) I’ve never been a Eurocrat myself, and b) if you are thinking about entering a concours I’d recommend a pursuit where the odds are more in your favour and the rewards more enjoyable.
So we are talking about jobs in the Brussels EU penumbra – the shadowy area which surrounds those Institutional colossi, its occupants darting out of the shadows here and there to feast on the crumbs dropping from the Berlaymont.
More prosaically, that means:
- industry & trade associations
- think-tanks and researchers
- consultants and lobbyists
- media, assorted others
I may write about each of these sectors in more detail over time, but here’s a quick summary of the prospects within each grouping.
NGOs: can be a good way in to EU-Brussels employment, although contacts can be short-term, and pay lower than other sectors. NGO jobs are either supporting the core operations of the network (policy, communications, membership support etc), or linked to specific projects. Working for an NGO project offers the best chance for a Brussels outsider. Many NGOs are almost constantly in the process of applying for project funding, and the number of staff they employ can vary from year to year, depending upon whether they are successful or not.
If the Commission approves a project, then the NGO may find themselves needing to recruit staff very quickly in order to make the project happen within the required time-frame. The downside to such positions is that they are invariably fixed-term contracts, lasting for the duration of the project (often one year or so). But they can be a valuable way into the jobs market, and the economic downturn has not yet hit jobs in this sector as hard as the private sector.
There are a huge number of trade associations in Brussels, representing almost every imaginable economic sector. Jobs tend to be better paid than NGOs, but experience within the sector is often a pre-requisite for anything beyond an internship position. Although driven by different objectives, the structure of trade associations can be very similar to that of NGOs, with communications, policy, and member support functions dominating. Secretariat size varies from single-person operations through to offices of 20 or more. Many larger companies have EU public affairs offices in Brussels, as well as relying on their membership of trade associations to track and influence EU policies. But such jobs are rarely advertised in Brussels, an are often filled internally, or by those with substantial public affairs experience within another company, trade association or consultancy.
The private sector is recovering, with a few more jobs around than last year, but companies are still being cautious, and trade associations are often experiencing budget pressures as well.
Think-tanks can provide a refuge for itinerant academics who wind up in Brussels, but their agenda is strongly linked to EU policy, and they are just as likely to be seeking strong project management skills as pure research experience. Plus, there are not a lot of vacancies in the sector so employment prospects are limited.
The doors around Place Lux are widely festooned with the logos of various EU regions and municipalities. It helps to be from the region in question if you are looking for a position there. You should also bear in mind that one of the main preoccupations is how to channel more of the EU’s budget back home, so experience working on structural funding or research funding is useful. The availability of jobs in this sector tends to shift with the political winds, and regional offices are vulnerable to cuts in funding back home. Definitely not a good time to seek a job in one of the UK’s many regional offices, for example, where the outlook is not good…
Consultancies exist in all shapes and sizes in Brussels, from small specialist one-person offices, through to the larger networks like Burson Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, and Edelman. The larger offices are almost always recruiting, in the sense that they will keep their eyes out for anyone who could prove an interesting recruitment, but entry-level positions tend to follow-on from a period as a stagiaire. Consultancies definitely suffered early on in the downturn – since such contracts are one of the first things which companies looking for budget cuts can terminate – but they are also now one of the first to pick up again, for the same reason: their flexibility means that clients can engage them quickly if they no longer have the capability in-house. If you have transferable experience from another sector, then it can prove possible to make the leap to consultancy (as I’ve done myself), but bear in mind that consultancies usually need people who are flexible enough to work across a range of policy areas, and with a range of skills, so that they can adapt to a range of clients.
Beyond these core groups, there is also the Brussels press corps, filled mainly by journalists seconded from national publications, but also featuring some ‘local’ EU media such as EurActiv, and specialist publications like ENDS Europe. You would usually need substantial media experience, though, to get a break in the press corps, plus a high alcohol tolerance of course.
The positive news is that there are jobs in Brussels… but there are a lot of people chasing them. Competition is particularly hot for ‘entry-level’, where the large number of stagiares in Brussels makes it particularly difficult to get that first job. (At some point I’ll write something about the stagiaire system – which is great for getting experience, but can turn into a cheap / free workpool which some organisations definitely abuse).
Brussels is a stagiare town – with a large influx of graduates arriving in Brussels every few months to undertake work experience within the EU Institutions. Some of them party for a few months, then go straight home, but many are looking to stay, which means that there is always a large pool of highly-qualified graduates from across Europe looking for a paid job after completing a stage in Commission, Parliament, or Council. The problem for them, of course, is differentiation – how to make yourself look different from all the others applying for the same job. And there are a lot – when working in the NGO sector I would regularly have to sift through over 100 applications from ex-Commission stagiaires, with numbers particularly high around the end of the Institutional stage periods. Excellent qualifications and language skills are taken almost as a ‘given’ (unless you are a Brit, where the ability to order a coffee in French is taken as evidence of advanced polyglot status), so that it is experience which makes a difference.
Even so, you can give yourself a better chance to stand out from the crowd just by doing something different. I once got a job interview with a youth organisation solely on the basis of writing a joke essay about Britney Spears and inter-generational solidarity in place of a regular cover letter… Beyond such gimmicks, perhaps the best way to find an entry point is to be curious. Ask to meet people who do interesting jobs, find out about what they do, and think about whether your skills could match their sector. Whilst many jobs are advertised, many opportunities arise quickly, and a meeting can often lead to unexpected opportunities at a later date, when a position is created, a new project funded, or the organisation suddenly realises that it needs more support.
Brussels is full of small offices which are essentially satellites for larger organisations (the regional government back home, the NGO or company headquarters, etc). This means that you won’t be working with 500 people, where you can keep your head down for a few months, but are more likely to be thrown straight into delivering a part of the organisation’s work programme. For that reason, one of the main qualities which is sought is the ability to get on with the job yourself: show initiative, manage time, and manage projects effectively.
This skill of execution is perhaps the most prized in Brussels. A cynic might say that is because it is so lacking in most of these organisations, but what do cynics know… they spend most of their time drinking coffee in the bars around Place Lux.