Wednesday, 12 February 2014

After the traineeship

One of the issues in the minds of all trainees as the traineeship is approaching its end is: what to do next? Many will go to Brussels already with the goal of staying there working afterwards. Others would prefer to start a career in their country of origin. One thing is common to all of us, though: the idea that doing a traineeship in Brussels will open some professional doors for us and enhance our future career.

As regards to that, I will start off my describing you my personal case. I was already working for 2 years and a half in my country before doing the traineeship, so I was not a recent graduate. I wanted a career change, wanted the experience of working in an international environment and wanted to learn more about the European Union, through a hands-on experience. So this traineeship came in the perfect timing for me. But my goal was never to continue my career abroad (at least that was not my first option). My goal was always to return to Portugal, so in terms of taking advantage of the Brussels' opportunities to launch myself for another job afterwards, I would say I strategically used them just to meet people from my country that worked in the same area as I was working in the Commission, learn from them and offer my collaboration in what I could. I did not make an effort to explore the opportunities that would lead me to score a job in Brussels after the traineeship.

Unlike me, most trainees will try their best to stay in Brussels after the traineeship. And will make the most of what Brussels has to offer them to achieve this goal (participating in events, meetings, networking gather ups, cocktails, etc). So, if you're someone who would like to continue your career within the "Eurobubble", here's the options I figured out during my time there that you have available.

To work within an European Institution:

1) Stay as an interimaire: the interimaire are workers with temporary contracts (up to 6 months) that shall cover a temporary need from an Unit. For example, the Unit is willing to hire a permanent worker, but that process will still take some time and they need someone in between. Or they are having a lot of work at that moment for a specific project. Or they have someone out in maternity/sick leave. The interimaire earn about the double of a blue book trainee and are hired through temporary work agencies. You are still seen as an external worker to the EC and cannot have vacations during that period. It can be a good solution to have right after the traineeship, but it is still a temporary solution. Some people (for example, the person responsible for the Portuguese personnel working in the European institutions at our Permanent Representation) discourage the use of this type of contract, as it is a bit shady how it is ruled (there are not clear rules stating the status of this position, most of what you know from it is by hear saying) and it can be an excuse for some Units to never hire a permanent worker and extend in time the temporary situation of some workers. I know several people from my session that got an interimaire contract and in the trainees' newspaper it was once published an interview to a girl that was an interimaire for 2 years already (she had already been to 4 different Units, spending 6 months in each). The advantage of this position is that you do not need to apply to any competition or do any sort of tests. It's enough that your Head of Unit is interested in having you as an interimaire and makes that proposal to the Human Resources. If approved, you can start working in that category immediately after your traineeship ends. Most trainees aim for this type of proposal once they finish their traineeship. If you are acquainted with the human resources people or with workers from other Units, you can try to scoop if they are willing to hire an interimaire and pitch to them to be you the chosen one. You can see other types of temporary contracts here.

2) Do the EPSO exam: the only way for you to be hired by the EC with a permanent job is to do the EPSO exam. This exam is an open competition, takes place usually once a year and you can make it in your country and in your language. It is based in reasoning exercises and there are dozens of books you can use to practice. There are thousands of people taking this exam and lots of them fail at their first try. When you pass the exam, you still have some other set of phases to pass through. If you get to the end, your name will be in a reserve list of people available to be hired by the Units. Then you have to keep checking on which Units are hiring and apply for these positions. Your name will only be in that list for a year, so you have to pay attention to the competitions that open, because if within that year you are not hired by some Unit, you lose your position and have to repeat the EPSO exam and go through the whole procedure once again. At this final stage it's a bit similar to when you find out you have been pre-selected for the blue book traineeship. If you just rely on the fact that you are on the reserve list and do nothing waiting for the Units to find you there, you risk never being recruited. If you apply and do a sort of lobbying next to the Units recruiting, you increase your chances of being called. In that moment it's when it becomes useful having done a traineeship and/or having worked as an interimaire, as that makes you know people in different Units and maybe those Units are hiring people. That way, as they already know you and you have some experiencie working there, so they may prefer to hire you than someone else. I saw once a statistic saying that only 0,1% of the people doing the EPSO exam in the end get a permanent contract in the EC. The great majority of people fail at some phase, or end up giving up in between (it takes normaly a year between doing the exam and getting a job, if you pass everything at first try). That's why some people prefer to have these tempoary jobs meanwhile they are trying to pass the EPSO. In the current moment, as the european public administration is suffering lots of cuts, it is much harder to get in as it was some years before. As for the organization of your career, the permanent officials form the EU Civil Service and are divided in two categories – administrators (AD) and assistants (AST), with a career system consisting of 16 levels (grades).

Administrators are typically engaged in drafting policies and implementing EU law, analysing and advising. An administrator may find him/herself playing a key role in the EU's legislative and budgetary processes, coordinating the broad economic and other policies of the Member States, taking part in trade negotiations with non-EU countries, or representing the Institutions in international forums. Others might be inspecting the fishing fleets in the Member States, developing or managing a specific scientific research programme, or drafting a decision of the European Court of Justice or the European Ombudsman. The EC offers a very wide range of career opportunities for university graduates including administration, law, finance, economics, communication and science to name but a few.
  • An administrator career covers grades AD 5 to AD 16.
  • AD 5 is the entry level for University graduates.
  • Selection and recruitment may also be offered at AD 6 / AD 7 in more specialist roles. Several years' relevant experience will be required.
  • AD 9 / AD 12 is middle management level. Selection/recruitment at these grades requires previous management experience.
Assistants are generally employed in a supporting role (secretarial, administrative, financial, communication, research, policy development and implementation etc). They play an important role in the internal management of the Institutions, notably in budgetary and financial affairs, personnel work, computing, and document management and scientific laboratory work.
  • An assistant career covers grades AST 1 to AST 11.
  • New staff usually enter at grades AST 1 or AST 3.
  • AST 1 candidates must have completed secondary education and have previous relevant experience, or have a relevant vocational qualification.
  • AST 3 candidates should have a relevant vocational qualification and/or several years' relevant experience.
You have an EPSO exam for the category of Administrator and another for the category of Assistant (which is said to be easier than the Administrator one, which is why some people qualified to apply to the Administrator one choose to apply to the Assistant one instead). Sometimes you have specific EPSO competitions, when it is intended to hire a specific group of people (for example, economists from a certain nationality to form a task force for that country or lawyer-linguists native of certain languages). If you fit the criteria, those competitions can be more accessible as the range of people eligible to apply is smaller.

3) Apply for a fix-term contract (CAST): Contract staff are recruited to do manual or administrative support–service tasks or to provide additional capacity in specialised fields where insufficient officials with the required skills are available. Contract staff are employed for a fixed maximum period (5 years), often with a shorter initial contract of 6-12 months, depending on the type of the job. In some EU bodies, it may be possible for the contract to be extended for an indefinite duration. Contract staff positions are available for a wide range of jobs, requiring different levels of qualifications. They are divided into four function groups:

I. manual and administrative support-service tasks
II. clerical or secretarial tasks, office management and other equivalent tasks
III. executive tasks, drafting, accountancy and other equivalent technical tasks
IV. administrative, advisory, linguistic and equivalent technical tasks.

The recruitment is made trough a selection procedure and not an open competition (like the EPSO exam), which means that there is no assessment centre stage and the number of successful candidates is not predefined. Therefore, this procedure is said to be easier than taking the EPSO exam, but again, it will not grant you a permanent position (although it will grant you a longer one than the interimaire option).

To work in the private sector: there are plenty of private organizations, companies, consultancy firms, law firms, NGOs, communication agencies, lobbyists, etc operating in Brussels to which you can apply to. The Stage Committee usually shares the offers they know about and trainees themselves often share the ones they find about in the Facebook group of your session. Usually, as the traineeship approaches its end, there is a job fair organized for the trainees, where several private sector entities are present and receive the CVs from the participants. There are also plenty of websites (EuroBrussels is one of them) that daily publish job opportunities there.

Other places to work: another option if you stay in Brussels could be to work in the European Parliament as an assistant or a trainee of a MEP. You can try to contact a MEP from your Member State (or another that works in issues related to your field of work) and see if they are hiring someone for their cabinet. They have a monthly budget for these expenses, so don't be shy to enquire them as many MEPs have traineeship programmes in their cabinets, or may need someone to work with them on some issue/for a specific period of time. Another option may be to contact your country's Permanent Representation, or Embassy/Consulate and see if they are hiring/accepting trainees.

From my session, I know several people who stayed in Brussels after the traineeship, either as interimaires, or in the private sector. What you should bear in mind is that competition is fierce, as most people who go to Brussels as trainees have the intention of scoring a permanent job there afterwards. Everyday there are events, cocktails, conferences, summits, talks, networking gather ups, etc, where people go to meet influential people, deliver CVs, make themselves noticed in the Eurobubble. I would suggest you that if it is your intention to stay in Brussels after the traineeship, to start thinking about it from the moment you get your traineeship offer. In that moment you already know  where and in what you will be working for the next 5 months, so you can start planning ahead and apply to stuff starting in the end of your traineeship. Try to focus on that from the very beginning, make business cards and promote yourself at the maximum next to the people you would like to work with. Probably you will have the chance to participate in meetings and conferences your Unit is involved in, where you will meet important people and you can try to become acquainted with those contacts from the very beginning. Pay attention to the events people from your Unit are participating in (in my case, we had a Unit meeting every week where these issues were discussed) and volunteer to acompany the responsible person to that event. Once you're there, see the people who are present (usually there's a list identifying all participants) and see who would you like to meet. Try to think of a way to approach them and to do some chat with the person. With some luck you will exchange business cards and you have then a reason to get in touch with them if you need in the future. When there are meetings with representatives from the Member States, or when you know someone present is from the same nationality as you, go there and say "hi". In those cases, the first approach is even easier, as you share the same nationality and language with the person and the conversation often starts about what are you doing in Brussels and you can use that opportunity to promote yourself next to people that are probably important in your country and in the area you are working on. Once you finish your traineeship you will most lileky have a bunch of contacts you can write to saying your traineeship has ended, but you're looking for a new job in that area and maybe they will know someone, who knows someone, who is hiring and can reference you to them.

There are lots of trainees who only wake up to this reality in the middle/end of the traineeship and then it's difficult to find something as everyone is searching for the same thing (you have to bear in mind that there are around 800 blue book trainees each session, plus the non-blue book ones, the Parliament ones, the ones from both Committees, the Council ones, plus the private sector ones... I would assume there are around 2.000 trainees in Brussels at each period and 90% of the ones I met there wanted to stay there, so you can image how big the competition is). You also have to take into consideration that Brussels gathers an elite of highly qualified young professionals, coming from all over Europe, so you are competing with people with excellent CVs among which it is more difficult to get noticed, as opposed to if you were competing only with nationals from your Member State. It is common in Brussels that everyone you meet has a degree from a top university of their country, has studied abroad as well, has a Master degree (some are doing PhDs already), has previous relevant professional experience, has travelled a lot, speaks 3 or 4 languages, etc.

After all of this, all I can say is that if you really want a job in Brussels, don't give up :) I know several people who did it and there's no reason why you can't be one of them too! You just need to have your feet on the ground and be aware that it is difficult, but possible. Several trainees go with the idea that the traineeships will open lots of doors for them and that there's lots of opportunities in Brussels and then get very disappointed (and somehow betrayed in their expectations) when they figure out it is not like that. This is the most competitive city in Europe to work in European affairs and the general employment situation in Europe is not good anywhere, so you may have to hop on and off some other traineeships after the EC one and battle hard to find a job that suits you. If that's what you really want, you just have to focus on getting there, whether in Brussels, or in some place else. What is true is that you can learn a lot about not only the work you will be performing in the EC, but also of everything else (given the amount of events and expat related opportunities that occur in Brussels) and improve highly the skills you already have and your CV. So use your time there for the most of it, with eyes already on what you want to do next in your future career.


  1. good post, may I ask what was Yiour case, when U came back to Portugal? Have You found a job that suits You, has anyone helped You from people You met?

    1. Now I did :) I wrote about it here:

      Some people I met in Brussels that work in Portugal said they would send my CV to their contacts, but the job I got didn't come that way, it was a public competition I applied to.

  2. Parabéns por mais um excelente post, Mariana.

    Começo o meu estágio na Comissão em Março e, com certeza, estas dicas ser-me-ão muito úteis futuramente!