The challenges of finding a job

Employment options for non-Dutch speakers are extremely limited

Waiters’ Derby, 13th Annual Hotel Ezra Cornell, 1938

International students face challenges when seeking employment, but there are places and people that will help them out.

International students of Leiden University looking for work during or after their studies face a challenge quite unlike students in other European countries. At many other places in Europe, an international student’s knowledge of English would give them a unique selling point. Without speaking the native language, they would still be able to get jobs in sectors such as tourism.

However, in the Netherlands, most native people can speak both Dutch and English, so a tourist office, for example, would be unlikely to hire a foreigner who only spoke English when they could hire a Dutch person who spoke both languages. Without speaking Dutch, one’s employment options are extremely limited.
Before they came to the Netherlands, at least one person probably told exchange students that, “You won’t need to learn Dutch – everyone speaks English there!” But as a Dutch person, if you walked into a shop or a café and the person serving you couldn’t speak Dutch, how would you feel?

Even backroom jobs such as washing up, cleaning, or stacking shelves require a basic level of Dutch, since they require employees to be able to communicate with their colleagues and the occasional customer.
An advertisement for a General Cleaner at the Sir Albert Hotel in Amsterdam, for example, specifies that applicants should have “great communication skills in Dutch and English.”

As Kirsten Jansen-van den Broek of Undutchables, a recruitment agency for international business personnel, explains, knowledge of Dutch is also important to some companies because they want employees to be able to immerse themselves in the company culture.

Indeed, Satya Autar of the Leiden University Careers Service advises students to get used to Dutch culture before entering the workplace. She explains: “As the Dutch culture can be described as direct and informal and the Netherlands has an egalitarian society, every person is equal and should be treated accordingly on the work floor.” So, salespersons may disagree with customers, and decision-making processes can take a long time, because everyone’s voice must be heard.

Jansen-van den Broek explains how Undutchables works to overcome challenges such as cultural differences between candidates and Dutch employers. “The Dutch can be very direct, especially for those coming from more conservative cultures,” she says. “Dutch people can sometimes come across as rude or inconsiderate for internationals. We try to explain that this is not to be taken personally.”

Leiden University’s International Student Adviser, Jantien Delwel, has helped dozens of internationals to find part-time employment during their studies. This has proved challenging in recent years due to an economic slump, she says, because the non-Dutch speaking roles were some of the first to be abolished. When a student comes to her for advice, she often begins by exploring employment options related to their studies, such as research assistant posts at the university.

If there are no such opportunities available, Delwel is often able to suggest potential employers based on the student’s skills or nationality. She often refers British and Irish students to Leiden’s international pubs, for example, because these venues are always keen to have an authentic accent behind the bar.

Once a suitable job has been found, Delwel helps students to navigate the legal and bureaucratic hurdles between them and employment. Everyone in employment has to have health insurance. Delwel advises students not to go with the cheapest companies, because their customer service departments are impossible to reach when you want to tailor the start date of your insurance.

Despite these challenges, many international students do manage to obtain part-time work during their studies, and some go on to have successful careers in the Netherlands.

Iva Škrabalová, a student from the Czech Republic, was recommended for a job at a catering agency by a friend. It appears that because they were in desperate need of staff, they hired her even though she does not speak Dutch. Now, a year later, they no longer employ non-Dutch speakers.

In her role at the catering agency, Škrabalová has to deal with the fact that all the staff briefings are given in Dutch, and customers speak to her in Dutch. She says she uses a combination of guesswork, experience, and knowledge of German to get by.

American student Karla Kavanaugh has learnt Dutch, although neither of the jobs she has found during her studies have required her to be fluent. The first was an internship at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, where the working languages are English and French. The second was a part-time job preparing plants for delivery at a tree and flower nursery.

Just as the International Student Adviser helps students find part-time employment during their studies, Leiden University also offers career advice for those who wish to find employment in the Netherlands after completing their course. In January 2016, the university launched an Employability Project for both international and Dutch students, consisting of three elements.

First, a number of study programmes have improved the ways in which they prepare students during their studies for the transition to the job market. This means learning skills such as presentation techniques, getting to know work environments, and connecting with alumni and employers.

Second, the university’s Career Service is being revamped, including the introduction of a new mentoring system in which students and recent graduates are coached by alumni to prepare them for their future careers.
Third, Leiden University is intensifying its contacts with employers and social partners, which should result in better internship and job opportunities for students.

Alongside this new project, the Careers Service continues to offer a range of services for international students, such as careers workshops, one-on-one advice meetings, and an online portal called LU Career Zone.
Daniel Bacon, a British MA student who attended a workshop for international students, said it contained useful advice about how to write a CV and perform well during a job interview.

However, he felt it could have provided more specific contacts and leads for entering the Dutch job market.
Careers Counsellors advise students to start networking early, gain employment experience during their studies, and ensure that their profile, CV, and interview manner are in line with Dutch culture.

Although Autar believes that “being able to speak Dutch is a great advantage for a students’ career in the Netherlands,” she also argues that “many companies have a strong international focus.”

Recruitment agencies such as Undutchables and Randstad Multilingual Services work with such companies to place international students and graduates in appropriate jobs.

The Dutch Government also offers assistance – it has established an Orientation Year scheme (also known as Search Year) to help foreigners who have studied at Dutch universities to find work.

With over one in 10 young people in the Netherlands unemployed, international graduates may seem to face a tough challenge finding work when they complete their course. However, the Netherlands actually has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the EU, superseded only by the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany and Malta.

It seems that despite all the challenges, international graduates may stand a better chance of finding employment here than in their native country, especially if they are able to master Dutch.
Grace Weaver

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