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Interview: Success in Belgium’s high-tech job market

Veteran executive recruiter shares his perspective on the Belgian job market, both for outsiders seeking work in the country and for young Belgian nationals just beginning their careers

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW EMEA: CW Benelux: Belgium seeks top tech talent

Amrop is an executive search company active in about 54 countries, and Benoit Lison, a managing partner based in Belgium, works within the firm’s global digital practice group.  

His focus is on recruiting chief digital officers, chief technology officers, IT directors and chief security officers. “We work on all these roles, and more, but always the number one or number two positions in a company,” he says.

As part of Amrop’s global digital practice group, Lison takes part in discussions about worldwide trends and strategies in hiring people with digital profiles for executive positions, but his main geographic focus is Europe. Naturally, he pays particularly close attention to his home country, Belgium. Because he hires only the highest-level executives, he has a bird’s eye view of how young people might one day reach those heights. 

One aspect of the overall business climate in Belgium is a rapid change in organisational structures. In the past, nearly every company had its entire structure within the country – including the CEO, human resources, finance, marketing, and all the other major departments.

Today there is a mix of structures, with the core parts of companies based in Belgium, and support positions located in shared service centres in other countries – often in central Europe, such as Poland, where shared service centres are becoming an important part of the economy. 

“In the past, all these people were based within legal entities in Belgium,” says Lison. “This is no longer the case. Now what we see is that commercial activities are based here – and the C-level executives are here – but transactional activities are in the shared service centres. Anybody who works for a Belgian company has to learn to work within these new virtual structures.”

Changing work environments

Of course, another reason work environments have become more virtual is because of Covid-19. Two or three years ago, very few companies were convinced that home working would be possible. Today, almost everyone can work from home – and some of the latest technology makes this more feasible than ever. 

Emerging from the pandemic, many companies are taking a step back and considering the importance of staff coming into the office and working with their peers. This notion is particularly important for young workers in service-based economies in countries such as Belgium. 

“In consulting companies, there has always been a kind of pyramid,” says Lison. “Before the pandemic, the young people were always working for the client on-premise. They worked together in small groups of four or five people. When they worked together, they adopted the same culture, the same way of working – and they exchanged know-how. This was on-the-job training.

“Today, when you see these youngsters working from home, there is not the same link with colleagues. It’s less intensive. It is also difficult to develop a culture and exchange know-how.”

Many companies are looking for the optimal hybrid formula, with people working partially from home and partially in the office. But the challenge is coordinating schedules so that people who need to be together come into the office at the same time. “These are new parameters that will impact our daily working lives,” says Lison. 

Rising, but complex salaries in Belgium 

“In general, salaries are going up,” says Lison. “But salaries are a complex issue, because of the high tax regime in Belgium. Companies have had to become more creative in offering compensation packages. Many companies offer a fix salary and a bonus, complemented with a hefty set of benefits, including a company car, an insurance package, and allocations for intellectual property.

“One unusual benefit that is often found in Belgium is a bike allowance, where the company pays the cost of a bicycle.”

Stock options and warrants may also be included in benefits packages. A warrant is a theoretical value share for private companies and is taxed at far lower rates than normal wages.

Read more about IT investments in Belgium

“There is one other peculiar thing in Belgium,” says Lison. “We have indexation. If the cost of living goes up by more than 2%, several categories of people get an automatic salary increase of 2%. Over the last year, we had three indexations. This means the people in certain categories of job – for example, civil servants – got a 6% salary increase last year. What is more, we will probably have a fourth indexation in the coming months.”

But Lison adds: “This indexation drives the cost of labour up. This means economic activity in our country is becoming far more expensive than in the surrounding countries, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage compared with close neighbours, such as the Netherlands.”

Advice for starting a career 

The first piece of advice Lison has for young people just starting their careers is to go for well-funded companies. “When you develop new technology, you really need a lot of resources,” he says. “You see a lot of startups that are not refunded after the first year. They never last.”

His second piece of advice is to always stay on top of technological developments. This is true for young people, but more generally for people of all ages. “I think there’s a huge chance for people who are aged above 45,” he says. “They already have a lot of know-how, but they should make sure they stay sharp. Otherwise, they might not be relevant any more for up-and-coming tech companies.

“The world is changing every day. There are so many new things coming in. We have to stay open-minded and absorb many new ideas to stay up to date.”

The third piece of advice Lison offers young people – this time specifically for young Belgian nationals – is to go for an international environment. “I think it’s really important to work with international cultures, to learn to deal with people from different parts of the world,” he says.

“This is certainly a challenge for Belgians because they stick to their homes. There is a huge difference, for example, between Belgium and the Netherlands. Dutch people are always going abroad. In Belgium, they stay at home.”

Lison adds: “There are a lot of opportunities everywhere, but it’s especially interesting for young people to see what’s happening in the big countries, like India and China. It will be very important to keep an eye on these places in the coming years. People in India and China are very well trained, speak English, and are open to working abroad. People from these countries will take jobs from young people in Europe.  

“We will have a more competitive labour market in the coming years. Young people need to prepare.”

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