High-level jobs are hard to come by in the North
You have a great career, your partner not so much
Krzysztof Kusch dreamed of a life in a foreign country, so when his girlfriend got a job in Groningen, he left Poland to be with her. He’d been to the Netherlands before, had two master’s degrees, and was an experienced data analyst. He figured he wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job. IBM had a position open.
But once he’d arrived here, the position at IBM had been filled. Kusch went to Dual Career Support, the UG HR programme for employees’ partners. Kusch went to every single drinks do and coffee meeting organised by the programme, took all the LinkedIn courses, and applied for every single job he could find. Over time, he started feeling increasingly down.
‘I’d get out of bed a little later each day, wiling away the hours, waiting for answers from jobs I’d applied to.’ Occasionally, he’d make it to a second round, but most places rejected him outright. ‘It was demoralising.’
Michael Kasteleijn, with the International Welcome Centre North, which the UG set up five years ago in collaboration with the city and the Dutch immigration service IND, says it’s no wonder that internationals have a hard time finding a job here. The centre for expats organises social events, but also provides administrative help with bank accounts and visa.
‘Hiring an international is a lot of work for a company’, says Kasteleijn. A quick chat over coffee is fine, but meetings and discussion on operating processes require a whole different level of Dutch. Meetings, protocols, forms: ‘Most companies use Dutch for all these things.’
Most companies still have their meetings in Dutch
Some companies do specifically like working with internationals, says Kasteleijn. ‘IMDS in Roden deliberately hired internationals for half its positions.’ All the different viewpoints inspired by the employees’ backgrounds can lead to lucrative innovations, ‘maximising a company’s yield’.
IBM, Google, Catawiki, Campina, Avebe, and all the little startups in the north also welcome international workers. But the number of positions available here pales in comparison to the western provinces.
Kusch finally succeeded in his search; after a year, he got a job with Philips in Drachten. Ironically, his girlfriend had broken up with him two weeks prior. He’s been working there for a year now, and has a permanent contract.
Antonio Giuliani, an international with roots in various countries, came here in October of last year. He speaks Spanish, Italian, English, and a little Greek. He’s doing work experience at the UG’s Kapteyn Institute, working on the visualisation of big data. He knows he’d have a better chance at real job if he spoke Dutch.
‘When I heard my partner had been accepted for the PhD position, I immediately downloaded Duolingo to my phone’, says Giuliani. He pulls a book from the shelf: Kasper wordt een kip. It’s a Dutch children’s book for twelve-year-olds, but it’s difficult for expats like him. ‘I ask my partner about the words I don’t understand’, he says, laughing. She is Dutch.
His enthusiasm may be real, but he’s also deadly serious. Before the corona crisis, he would go to job fairs like Make it in the North, particpated in all the workshops, and went to all Partners Of INTernational Staff coffee POINTS. During his most recent, and failed job interview, language was cited as a problem. His mastery of Dutch wasn’t good enough yet.
But even Dutch people who are highly qualified, like Marthe Walvoort’s husband, can have trouble finding jobs in the north. ‘Marnix had a high-paying job at ING when I was accepted at MIT’, she says. He’d had no issue finding a job in Boston, but then she was offered a tenure track position at the UG.
And that was a whole different ball game. Groningen isn’t exactly a financial hub; most finance jobs are out west. But that would mean the couple would have to live apart, or Marnix would have to commute for hours every day. ‘One of my colleague’s partners did that’, says Walvoort. ‘She and the kids moved back to Amsterdam.’
A colleague’s partner moved back to Amsterdam
Walvoort and her husband decided to live in Groningen, and with the help of the Dual Career Support’s network coaching, he found a job as a financial manager with Paragon in Veendam. He combines his work with a post-master at the UG.
‘The ING had offered to train Marnix’, she Walvoort, but here, he had to come up with something else in an effort to grow professionally. But at 10,000 euros a year, an executive master isn’t exactly cheap, says Walvoort. ‘Fortunately, my faculty was prepared to pay for part of it.’
Help from the UG
Harianne ter Meer with Dual Career Support says the UG doesn’t often do that much to make sure they can keep an employee.
Until approximately five years ago, partner support was rare. The UG’s internationalisation, however, led to the creation of the International Service Desk, Dual Career Support, the International Welcome Center North, and Make it in the North.
Every year, sixty partners register at Dual Career Support. They are automatically allowed to respond to internal vacancies at the UG and have access to workshops and social gatherings. Almost half receive coaching.
One or two people receive extensive help; partners of people the UG is extremely eager to employ. ‘We try to utilise our network to find them a job’, says Ter Meer. Unfortunately, the UG can’t pay the partner’s salary, like Harvard or MIT do. ‘They have plenty of money.’
But the faculties can make a deal with each other, she says. According to her, the UG is the only university in the Netherlands where this happens. One faculty pays a third of a partner’s salary for their work at another faculty. The board of directors pays another third. ‘The faculty employing the partner has a whole new staff member for only the third of the price.’
Finding work is a job in and of itself
Over the past five years, this has worked out approximately twenty times, says Ter Meer. ‘Sometimes it fails, or the partner backs out.’ That means Groningen loses out on a much-desired researcher.
We do a lot, but we can’t do everything, says Ter Meer. ‘Finding work is a job in and of itself. It takes so much time.’ It’s especially difficult in a job market that you don’t know: you don’t have any connections and you don’t know the culture.
Some partners don’t put much effort into finding a job, however; one obstacle is the fact that childcare isn’t free for the unemployed.
‘People can get discouraged or frustrated’, she says. ‘They’re very motivated at the beginning, but they start flagging over time.’ Others keep going no matter what. ‘I admire people like that. It’s definitely hard.’
The language remains the biggest obstacle. ‘Even the UG requires a high skill level’, says Ter Meer. ‘But it takes at least three years to learn to speak Dutch properly.’ The tax office has forbidden the UG from providing free language courses.
Ter Meer thinks the UG should take a closer look at whether a command of Dutch is really necessary for some positions. She feels the work of a secretariat with five employees could be divided in such a way that internationals can work there, too. They could then set the condition that their Dutch has improved after a year and that the contract extension is contingent on this. With that condition in place, the UG is allowed to pay for a language course.
She realises it takes a little more effort, and that it would affect co-workers as well. ‘But it’s just that little bit more that we do for them.’