Entrepreneur Frederic Bulcaen says he cannot find the staff he needs for his industrial ventilation company Typhoon, which deploys teams of engineers across Europe to install equipment to keep factories clean.
“I just hired somebody with a master’s in industrial engineering who was able to choose from 10 different companies that all wanted him,” said Mr. Bulcaen, in an office overlooking stacks of shiny steel pipes and giant motors. “It is very, very difficult.”
Materials engineers are needed in industries such as aerospace and chemicals, but only about 15 of them graduate in Belgium every year, forcing companies to look abroad.
For some young people, basic education is the problem. To work in Brussels, for instance, English is a must-have; the city, often likened to Washington D.C., is packed with embassies, international organizations and industry lobbyists.
About 36 per cent of people in Brussels come from outside the European Union, and there’s not much opportunity for monolingual French-speaking children of immigrants. The car plants and factories where they would have found work two decades ago have closed.
Twenty-four-year-old Michel Ayim is a second-generation immigrant who spends his days with his friend Pierre Bello, smoking cigarettes and listening to French rap in front of the paint-flaked warehouses along Brussels’ industrial-era canal. Just a few stops away on the metro are the shiny complexes of the EU institutions, where members of the European Parliament earn €95,000 ($120,200) a year plus benefits.
“I go to a temping agency, but I get turned away because I don’t speak good English,” said Mr. Ayim, who has not had a permanent job since leaving school. “So maybe I work as a waiter for a day, but I can only dream of a good salary.”
Children of immigrants – who mostly came from North Africa – face particular hurdles. One in five people in Belgium are of immigrant origin but people from outside Europe are often poorly integrated, and immigrants rarely fill professional jobs.
Fewer than half the non-EU immigrants who have yet to obtain Belgian nationality were in a job in May this year, according to a study by the Flanders job agency VDAB.
“They should have told our parents how important education is and that you have to push your children to get a qualification,” said Ms. Ahidar, whose parents came from North Africa in the 1960s to work in Belgian industry.
Some children of immigrants say they are dissuaded from gaining useful skills. Jobless 26-year-old Rashid, whose parents came from Morocco, said his “teachers at primary school used to tell my parents I was a talented and creative student.”
“But when I moved to secondary education, they immediately started telling them I should follow a career in manual labour,” he said, sipping mint tea and watching Latin American football in a Moroccan cafe in Antwerp.
Some Belgian employers also discriminate on race despite laws against it. An investigation by recruitment agency federation Federgon found a third of agencies agreed to send only white Belgians to fill vacancies during the past year.
One 25-year-old, Hamza Ahmadoun, said he had done around 60 jobs from security to telesales in the six years since leaving school. “I speak Dutch, English and Arabic, but I don’t get a chance, it is pure discrimination,” he said. “In the morning I get up, I pray and see what the day brings.”
But it is not just the children of immigrants who are struggling.
Anna De Cock, 24, a white Belgian born in the Netherlands, works sweeping Antwerp’s tree-lined avenues as part of another job creation scheme. “I am lucky to be here,” she said, dressed in a bulky jump suit and carrying a black broom.
Ms. De Cock wanted to become a chef and took jobs washing dishes in dark, back-alley kitchens, but was unable to find steady work, lost interest and stopped showing up.
Then there’s the issue of unemployment benefits in northern Europe, which for a single young person are more than double that of the United States. Belgium is even more generous than that.