Demand for engineering professionals in Belgium was more than 27% higher in the third quarter of 2022 than in the same period last year, according to Jobfeed statistics. As with so many jobs, talent is becoming increasingly scarce. Attracting professionals from abroad could be a solution, but so far Belgium is still a bit more cautious than our neighbouring countries.
Tunali, senior manager at international recruitment agency Robert Walters, explains why giving foreign talent a chance is so interesting for organisations, particularly engineering professionals.
The demand for specialists is high in almost every position, but it is striking how the role of an Engineer has risen in the list of bottleneck occupations in recent years. Jülide: "Engineers remain in high demand: 27% more vacancies were posted in the third quarter of this year compared to the same quarter last year. Particularly for 'project engineers' we see an acute shortage. These vacancies are becoming difficult to fill, due to the tight market. Hence, more and more organisations are forced to look beyond the borders to attract the right talent."
In the past, however, Belgian employers were reluctant to hire foreign engineers for their projects. Cultural differences, but mainly the language barrier, were the main reasons for this. Project engineers are in daily contact with all kinds of people within the business. It is therefore important that they can communicate fluently at all levels. But often technical documents are only available in Dutch or French, making it difficult to fill the position by a professional who does not master the language. Not only that: engineers usually speak English fluently, but this does not always seem to be the case with technical staff in the workplace. Hence, employers are more reluctant to look for talent across national borders. "With that mindset, the talent shortage grows year on year. At some point, employers are going to have to adjust their recruitment strategy anyway, if they want to guarantee productivity and continuity within their organization," Jülide warns.
Things are slightly different in our neighbouring countries. "In countries like The Netherlands and Germany, we see more and more companies recruiting internationally. In Belgium, it rarely happens that an organisation deliberately hires a foreign engineer, because of that language barrier. "Back in 2017, the Flemish Advisory Council for Innovation and Entrepreneurship hammered on the importance of a clear welcome policy for foreign workers, but not much has come of it so far."
"However, for hard-to-fill positions such as engineers, there are many advantages to investing in foreign talent," says Jülide. "International talent is a crucial part of our economy. They provide diversity in the workplace and fill the voids in our labour market. They are skilled people, and what's more, many 'expats' usually do not find it necessary to negotiate a higher salary or better working conditions, as they are already improving in many ways by moving to Belgium. So that is very interesting for employers."
Of course, there are certain things that need to be arranged when employers hire a foreign candidate. For instance, accommodation, taxes and plane tickets that have to be paid, which may or may not also be for the family, must be considered. "Belgium is limping behind because there are few to no clear rules about foreign workers. For example: there is no legal framework around housing. And whether the candidate needs an expat contract, or a local contract, should rely on the employee. There are some advantages to having a local contract, such as obtaining the nationality of the host country after a certain period. That might motivate candidates, but the exact rules are often not clear enough," Jülide says.
But there are solutions. A better initiative around work permits for foreign employees already came from the government in 2019. With the 'single permit' or combined permit, the work permit and residence permit must no longer be applied for separately but can be done together. That saves organizations a lot of time and has managed to lower the threshold for recruiting foreign talent anyway. But that is not enough, however.
There is an urgent need for clear rules around accommodation, as in our neighbouring countries. But employers themselves can also make a difference.
Putting a company culture and welcome policy in place that encourages diversity and inclusion is a first step in the right direction. This means, for instance, that organisations ensure people are not excluded because of language. Hopefully, vacancies for bottleneck occupations such as engineers will get filled more quickly and easily in this way in the future," Jülide concludes.
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