If we simply were to listen, Belgium has always been a country divided in two, or even three. With three different linguistic communities (Dutch, French and German), it has essentially become a federation of three different regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Greater Brussels). All divided by geography, demographics and political beliefs. As a result of division, the Belgian labour market becomes particularly complex to comprehend.
A record-number of open vacancies
Like many European countries, Belgium currently has more open vacancies than it ever had before. When Eurostat started tracking job vacancies for Belgium in 2012, the total number of open vacancies was just over 100,000. The number fluctuated between 100,000 and 80,000 for four years until 2016. In recent months, however, that number has shot up dramatically to a total of 170,000 open vacancies in June, 2021.
‘Belgium’s objective is to reach 80% employment rate by 2024’
As the number of vacancies continues to shoot up, the connection to employment rates is easily made. “Increasing the employment rate will be one of the most important themes for Belgium in 2022”, says Wim Thielemans, leading recruitment expert and author of several books. “Belgium’s objective is to reach 80% employment rate by 2024.”
“The main positive is that the province of East Flanders has already broken through that magic limit in the COVID year 2020. That proves we can get there.”
“In 2020, the Flemish employment rate (74.7%) was clearly higher than in the other regions”, Thielemans adds. “In the Walloon Region it was 64.6%, in the Brussels Capital Region 61.3% and in Belgium 70.0%. For reference: in the European Union (EU27), the employment rate was 72.3% on average in 2020. The main positive is that the province of East Flanders has already broken through that magic limit in the COVID year 2020. That proves we can get there.”
“Just like the climate crisis, it is not painful enough to change our behaviour.”
But the shortage on the labour market and the growth in bottleneck professions in more and more sectors is worrying, Thielemans admits. “But just like the climate crisis, it is not painful enough to change our behaviour”, he says. “However, to increase the employment rate, there is now a historic opportunity because we should not be trying to create jobs on the demand side. We must concentrate on the supply side: how to get more people into work.”
‘Talent is the new gold’
Belgium’s labour market, like most European countries, is now extraordinarily candidate-driven. “We already saw it happen before COVID shook up the labour market”, says Grégory Renardy, Executive Director of Michael Page Belgium and Luxembourg. “Belgium’s market was already leaning heavily towards being a candidate-driven market. It already was a war for talent, but in 2021 the war really expanded to all kinds of disciplines. I have never observed a market like this one.”
“It already was a war for talent, but in 2021 the war really expanded to all kinds of disciplines.”
“Talent is the new gold”, says Marleen Deleu, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of independent knowledge platform NextConomy. “Most business leaders and HR departments are now fully aware of the situation on the labour market. They are increasingly looking to invest in upskilling and reskilling programs. They’re simply starting to adjust their requirements and widen the talent pools.”
“I see this trend, revolving around a shortage of candidates, continuing with a strong force to begin the year.”
“We really feel like society has been operating between brackets for a year”, Renardy adds. “Now everyone has to recover in rapid fashion and find workforces. I see this trend, revolving around a shortage of candidates, continuing with a strong force to begin the year. And I expect, towards the end of 2022, we will come back to a labour market that is a bit more ‘normal’. I see it still being a market driven by candidates, but perhaps a tad more balanced.”
A reluctancy to hire across the border
Every country has its own strategy to deal with the European talent crisis, but Deleu notes that Belgian companies have perhaps been reluctant to do what others around them clearly have. As the number of freelancers has increased dramatically over time in France, Belgium’s rate of those who are self-employed within the workforce lies at 13.78%, slightly below the European average of 14.02%.
“Due to the scarcity in the local labour market they are looking for new talent pools but fear for legal and practical complexity of working remote makes them reluctant to do.”
“Some HR managers are now embracing the contingent workforce, but sadly this is still only a minority”, Deleu says. “Companies in Belgium only now start to look for talent across national borders. Due to the scarcity in the local labour market they are looking for new talent pools. But fear for legal and practical complexity of working remote makes them reluctant to do. Talent management still is siloed in most companies and there remains a lot of room for improvement here.”
‘Room for DEI improvement’
Meanwhile, Deleu and Thielemans argue that despite calls for diversity and inclusion policies have were made, 2022 could be the year targeted action is taken in Belgium. “We need to find a better selection and a non-discriminatory way to recruit people”, Thielemans says. “To give every talent on the labour market a chance, Flemish Minister of Employment Hilde Crevits and the sectors shifted up a gear.”
“Those actions must deliver something, namely that the results are better compared to the baseline measurement.”
“For the very first time, 33 sectors have committed themselves to charting the nature and extent of discrimination within their sector by means of a baseline measurement”, he adds. “This will reach nearly 1.9 million employees. These baseline measurements were carried out in 2021 and must now lead to actions on the part of these sectors. Those actions must deliver something, namely that the results are better compared to the baseline measurement.”
This is the first in a series of articles about recruitment in Belgium and the Belgian labour market. Subscribe to the ToTalent newsletter to stay updated about future, country-specific series on different countries throughout Europe.