Antwerp has a conundrum that seems like it should solve itself: The city has thousands of job opportunities and thousands of people searching for jobs. Hey presto: Full employment! But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Around half of all available jobs are what the city refers to as ‘bottleneck jobs’ – that doesn’t mean you need to be fond of the bottle to succeed in them; the term is reserved for vacancies that are very difficult to fill, either because they require a very specific technical skill set, such as computer coding, or because they require a lot of flexibility, such as working late shifts at a warehouse.
As more than half of Antwerp’s residents (around 51%) have a migrant background, part of the local strategy for solving the problem is enabling this population to upskill and get access to employment, including recently arrived migrants and refugees. For Antwerp, improvement in this area is seen as urgent, as, of the 30,000 jobseekers currently in the market for work, half have few qualifications and half have remained unemployed for over a year, indicating that they will need assistance to fill the kinds of vacancies on offer.
What employers want
New arrivals in Antwerp have some serious barriers to getting to work that the city has researched and is trying hard to mitigate or remove. Some demographics have it harder than others: A lot of migrant women are arriving through family reunification programmes and they have an especially tough time trying to find work. The primary barriers that the city has identified are the high expectations of employers around language ability, difficulty with the recognition of qualifications that migrants have received in their own countries, and discrimination.
They want to feel useful and they want to integrate.
“We believe it’s important for them to work as soon as possible,” says Greet Vierendeels, Policy Officer at the City of Antwerp, “A lot of these refugees have no family here, and they want to work, they need to have a network, they want to feel useful and they want to integrate.” This is not just the case in Antwerp – the story is similar in many European cities, which is why Antwerp has teamed up with Tampere, Sofia and Madrid in the European funded CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities, to put there heads together and make integration more effective.
There are three main institutional actors in Antwerp that cooperate to make migrant integration a reality. First there is the city itself, which provides assistance through its social benefit scheme, targeted at helping its 7,000 clients become self-sufficient. This primarily happens by referring these clients to the Work Department, where they can apply for regular jobs or avail of a work experience programme that can enhance their employability.
A new role model
The city also wants to be a role model for employers, and therefore employs some 600 people in the local public administration both through job training schemes, and through ‘Werkhaven,’ a publicly owned social enterprise that employs people with social problems in street cleaning, renovation, and green maintenance. This is in addition to the city’s role in funding organisations that provide job coaching and training for unemployed people.
The second big player on the integration scene is the VDAB, the Flemish regional public employment service. The regional body works together with the city to match employers and employees, keeping a database of jobseekers and vacancies that it uses to help employers find employees, and providing coaching and other services to jobseekers to help them develop all the requisite skills.
The third and final big player is Atlas, an autonomous agency responsible for carrying out the Flemish integration policy for the City of Antwerp. Their newcomer integration programme is mandatory for all adults who come to reside in the city from outside the EU, and includes language courses and a course on local life, delivered in over 30 languages, ranging from how to use public transport to understanding local norms about gender equality. Atlas doesn’t focus only on migrants, however – the agency also works with employers, advising them on how to manage greater diversity in their workforce.
When newcomers arrive in a city, the layout and systems in place take a lot of getting used to. The long periods of integration that precede employment can be trying for migrants who are enthusiastic to work, and work itself is often one of the best ways to integrate. To make the system more efficient and humane, Antwerp, the VDAB and Atlas are teaming up to provide something called a ‘one-stop-shop.’
The one-stop-shop, ‘Centraal Onthaalbureau Coevelt’ got started through the European Social Fund in 2016 in order to reduce the time between migrants’ arrival and their introduction into the workforce, allowing the city to run integration and work activation in parallel, rather than waiting for the former to be complete before embarking on the latter.
The clients engage with a social worker through an interview which explores their family situation, finances, background, housing, education and so on. Then, a second interview is held with a ‘trajectory councillor’ from Atlas that focuses on the newcomer’s qualifications and employment aspirations. This interview will decide whether these people would be capable of and benefit from a trajectory that sees integration combined with workforce activation. If not, they will join Dutch classes and try to get work at a later stage.
If it is felt that a newcomer is sufficiently ready, the VDAB will either assist them in finding a regular job or with a preparatory training for such work. About 20% of clients jump straight to this stage. If the newcomer needs more support or guidance, the city’s work department will offer them supported employment. About 40% of clients go this route.
This approach requires close-knit collaboration, and Antwerp has stressed the importance of having one point of contact and one location for all of the services, not just because it makes the process more manageable for migrants, but also because it helps the city and its partners coordinate and understand each other’s processes and points of view.
It takes two
Another approach to hastening migrants’ journey to employment is personal mentoring, as carried out by Antwerp’s partner Duo for a Job. Their programme matches young immigrant job seekers with people over 50 who have professional experience and support them in reaching their professional goal. The pair meet for two hours a week for six months. “Personalised guidance and trust are key in empowering young jobseekers with migratory roots,” says Carlos Rovzar, Director of Duo for a Job Antwerp.
Personalised guidance and trust are key in empowering young jobseekers with migratory roots.
This exchange does not only benefit the migrant who receives intense and individualised support. Mentors are often retired, and passing on their knowledge helps them feel socially active and reminds them that their know-how remains very valuable, even if they are out of work.
The non-profit organisation Duo for a Job has created more than 3,200 duos in six different cities (Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Ghent, Mechelen, and Paris). More than half of the mentees manage to get a job within 12 months, and a further one in four enter training or an internship. The city’s role is to provide financial support, mobilise mentors and mentees, and stimulate synergies with other public and social agencies.
A bond for bonding
The dividends that this programme has reaped were by no means certain in its infancy. When it was first conceived of in Brussels eight years ago, it was only possible thanks to a unique financing instrument called a ‘social impact bond.’ This bond meant that private investors took on the financial risk for the first three years, after which they were reimbursed once an independent evaluation attested to the programme’s efficacy.
When Duo for a Job wanted to duplicate their programme in Antwerp, the city supported it from the start. “In order to convince candidates to take these big steps it was handy to rely on the good practices, lessons, results, network and team of Duo in Brussels,” says Rovzar.
The whole story
Duo for a Job also stresses the importance of balancing private, public and social actors. The city puts up an average of 12% of the funding for Duo for a Job, with philanthropies, foundations, companies and other public authorities supplying the rest. Diversification of the funding sources ensures the long-term stability that a programme like this needs.
Finding work can be a big part of meaningful integration into a new society, creating social bonds and a sense of individual empowerment. However, one thing that Antwerp and Duo for a Job want to keep in mind is that this is not the whole story. Impacts of programmes like work placement and mentoring are not just about whether people slide immediately into a job, they are also about building life skills and confidence that are of value for individual wellbeing, as well as people’s careers in the long term.