Unemployment paradox: the story behind West Flanders’ low jobless rate

Summary

At 6.2%, West Flanders has the lowest unemployment figures in the country, but local companies and organisations are warning of the labour crisis lurking beneath the figures

Deeper problems

When US manufacturing company Caterpillar announced it would shut its local factory last month, sending shockwaves across the country, Kortrijk mayor Vincent Van Quickenborne wasted no time directing the national spotlight to another employment crisis, one that has been quietly brewing for years.

Speaking on the national broadcaster Radio 1 on the day of the Caterpillar announcement, Van Quickenborne invited the 2,000 laid-off workers to come to West Flanders, where the jobs are bountiful.

West Flanders has the lowest unemployment figures of any province in Belgium, at 6.2%; Wallonia’s Henegouwen, at 14%, has the highest. “These two provinces are next to each other,” Van Quickenborne said. “We should do everything we can to get those people to come work here.”

His primetime appeal was music to the ears of the many West Flanders companies and small businesses across a variety of sectors that are struggling to find qualified workers. The long-standing labour shortage in the province stunts companies’ growth in a very real way – leading to less revenue, less turnover. Yet this quiet jobs crisis has received only spotty attention from the local press and lawmakers.

Beating the drum

“This is seen as a luxury problem,” says Veerle De Mey from the West Flanders chapter of the chamber of commerce Voka. “But it’s not. This is a real threat.

“It’s something that really frustrates us sometimes, that our problem gets much less attention,” she says, drawing a distinction with the wide outrage over the Caterpillar layoffs. “Actually our problem is just as much of a threat to the region, because if this goes on any longer there is a risk that companies will leave, and that’s just as terrible.”

Labour shortage is seen as a luxury problem, but it’s not. This is a real threat

- Veerle De Mey of Voka

It’s why business associations like Voka have been beating the drum about this situation for years, and have mounted numerous programmes to woo workers from neighbouring areas like Wallonia and northern France.

Some employment organisations have left no stone unturned in the search for applicants, setting up career fairs and job booths at everything from the local KV Kortrijk football stadium to the Dranouter music festival.

One Wielsbeke company, Unilin, even enlisted the help of Pat Krimson, a Flemish dance artist popular in the 1990s. The first 1,000 applicants to visit the floor covering company’s jobs website were offered a free download of a dedicated mixtape Krimson had put together.

Large companies try to curb the labour shortage with a number of stopgap solutions – outsourcing some functions, optimising their production processes, giving extra tasks to other employees, contracting work to sheltered and social workplaces, and recruiting beyond language and country borders. The Kortrijk plant of the multinational building materials company Wienerberger, for instance, is recruiting engineers in places as far away as Portugal and Spain.

“But there’s only so much you can do,” De Mey says. “At a certain point, if you want to additionally grow as a company, you’re going to have to rely on people, and you’ll need to be able to find those people.”

War for talent

The province’s low unemployment rate means the competition between companies for workers – the “war for talent” – is fierce. According to a September poll by Unizo, the Flemish organisation that supports the self-employed, one in two SMEs in West Flanders sees the recruitment of qualified personnel as their biggest concern.

Pointing to the low number of unemployed locals and shortage of technical workers, Sabine Declercq, HR manager at the Roeselare pasta-maker Soubry, says the company gets most of its applicants from competitors. “We primarily have to make do with people who are already working in this field, and want to switch for some reason or other.”

Declercq says the competitive labour market has not yet produced a Silicon-Valley style environment in which employers try to outdo each other with lavish benefits and employee perks. “I don’t think it’s that bad yet, if you want to call it that,” she says. “But of course, if one company starts going down this road, the rest will probably quickly follow suit.”

Instead, the company tries to create as pleasant a work environment as possible, she says, “with nice working conditions, a nice team, with opportunities to do something fun after work hours and teambuilding events”.

The company currently employs people from 20 nationalities and has a dozen outstanding vacancies for packaging operators, production operators and technicians – all three have been designated by the Flemish employment agency VDAB as positions that employers struggle to fill – as well as a technical service supervisor.

The big question

The reasons behind the shortage of labour in West Flanders are a confluence of both historical and recent developments. The province has long been known as a region of hard workers, one where people are quick to sniff out business opportunities and keen to start out on their own.

West Flanders is home to both small businesses and large companies, several of which have their roots in the flax businesses that developed around the province’s erstwhile lifeline, the Leie river.

“Entrepreneurship is really baked into this region,” De Mey says. “People here have always reinvented themselves; that’s really what is particular about this region. When business is bad, we’ll try something else instead.”

I fear for a situation in which our workers will feel guilty when they take a day off because they know that will make it extra difficult for their colleagues

- Sabine Declercq

The acute need for workers that results from the high business density is further exacerbated by two acute problems facing Western nations – the shortage of workers with technical and technological degrees, and an ageing, retiring population without enough qualified workers to fill the freed-up vacancies.

Further compounding the problem is the brain drain this rural province has suffered in recent years. Lured by the bright lights of cities like Ghent and Antwerp, many young West Flemings leave the province to attend college and often end up settling in these cities rather than returning home.

The labour shortage is a strain, Declercq from Soubry says, and when vacancies remain open, projects are sometimes put on hold, or workers are asked to do extra time. Pointing out that Soubry workers are entitled to their annual leave and that it’s always difficult to find replacements, she says: “I fear for a situation in which our workers will feel guilty when they take a day off because they know that will make it extra difficult for their colleagues.”

Back to school

For Frederik Serruys, director of the West Flanders chapter of Unizo, both lawmakers and the VDAB need to target their efforts on fixing the existing mismatch on the labour market. Many job applicants in West Flanders do not have the skills or degrees employers are looking for, he says.

“For instance, we would be in favour of speeding up the process of making unemployment benefits dependent on further training or retraining in other sectors where there are sufficient vacancies,” he says. “So people will realise that there actually isn’t a future in the sector they’re applying to.”

The roots of the mismatch, however, stem from choices that teenagers and young adults make even before they enter the job market, he says, and consequently they should be addressed at the high-school and university level. In Serruys’ view, what’s needed is an education system that does a better job of steering students toward course options and degree programmes with a viable future.

As an example, he cites the province’s surplus of beautician graduates. “You see this phenomenon of ‘I’m going to keep searching in the sector that I trained for,’” he says. “But there simply aren’t enough jobs in the beauty industry, and yet there are so many other open vacancies – from those for highly skilled graduates to more skilled technical profiles.”

Serruys warns that the labour shortage in some sectors such as the construction industry has drawn the attention of a number of foreign companies, which have set up shop in West Flanders and brought over their own workers.

“But when Bulgarians, Romanians and Poles come and work here in Belgium, that’s wealth that’s being exported, to a certain degree,” he says. Citing Europe’s single market, he says, this trend is no cause for concern in itself. “But, locally, this often does pose a problem because it often makes it difficult for local construction companies to grow,” he says.

De Mey from Voka also says that the quiet labour crisis in West Flanders should give more people pause. “Companies create prosperity and well-being, and that’s something that is sometimes forgotten. People think that companies exist to make money and that CEOs drive around in big cars,” she says. “But a majority of people are employed by a company and this way have a salary that allows them to live their lives the way they want to.”

Photos courtesy Wienerberger and Unilin