The European Dream?

The European Dream?

Judging by the media coverage of recent years you would think a career in the EU would be the last thing on the minds of today's European youth. With fraying EU unity and constant speculation about the likelihood of the European "project" unravelling, choosing a job in law or medicine would, surely, be a safer bet.

Not so.

At least that is according to latest figures that show the lure of working in one of the EU institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers) is as strong, if not stronger, than ever before.

For example, in 2014 there were 27,500 applications for just 137 places for administrators and assistants, which make up the bulk of annual vacancies.

In 2015, however, this figure rocketed to 31,500 applications for a meagre 149 places.

With such a huge number of people chasing so few jobs, you would have thought that events, such as the eurozone crisis, which have shaken the EU to its core, had never happened.

The recruitment process for the EU institutions is known by its French name, ‘the concours’. There is usually an annual graduate entry level competition, as well as ad-hoc specialist competitions. Several years of previous work experience may be required for the latter.

To be eligible, you must be a citizen of a member state, have a good knowledge of a second EU language and have a bachelors degree or be in your final year of study.

A career in the EU offers opportunities to work in a wide range of fields, from international development and cybersecurity to trade or culture, as well as offering jobs for specialists, particularly economists, interpreters, lawyers and financial specialists, such as auditors and statisticians.

Short-term contracts are available too, for graduates who may not want to make a long-term commitment. But, as the Commission points out, when you work in European institutions, you develop a network of contacts for life and that's also very attractive.

The EU institutions and bodies also offer a variety of in-service training, also called ‘stages’. These internships usually last from 1 to 5 months.

There are also opportunities for civil servants in the EU External Action Service either as a ‘temporary agents’ or Seconded National Experts.

Competition is stiffest for jobs in the Commission, by far the biggest direct employer among the EU institutions, with some 30,000 employees.

The Commission says it is difficult to draw statistical comparison between the various competitions held each year because either they concern specialist profiles that are not run every year and may have different eligibility criteria or language related profiles (such as secretarial assistants, translators).

Nor is it "realistic," says the Commission, to compare 2010 - 2015 figures as the competition system has changed over the years.

Eirini Nikolaidou, an information and communication officer with the Commission, says, "It is difficult to compare in general the various competitions as profiles and requirements (such as languages required) change every year according to the Commission's needs."

The entrance exams are overseen by the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) which says, while they may be dreaded and feared by some, in an increasingly competitive job market, the European institutions "must be able to attract a diverse range of top quality applications."

That was the rational behind the creation of the EPSO Development Programme (EDP), what EPSO calls a "better, faster, more robust" new selection procedure to provide them with the "right people at the right time."

Since introduction of the EDP five years ago EPSO says the programme has made "dramatic and measurable" progress towards meeting its ambitious goals.

These include:

• In terms of meeting target numbers of successful candidates, the average rose from 69% of the institutions' needs in 2008 to 92% in 2011.

• EPSO has successfully progressed from pre-selection testing in three to 24 languages since 2010.

• EPSO has developed a range of new tests for specific profiles, such as video-based interpreting tests, "situational judgement tests" and professional skills tests for translators and for secretaries.

• EPSO reports satisfaction rates of concours in excess of 90%.

While the number of applicants for concours has risen quite markedly, this hides some very stark discrepancies between member states.

Take, for example, the case of the UK, which currently represents just over 12% of the EU population.

Despite this, the UK has only approximately 4.8% of staff in the EU institutions with the majority of these in senior grades, who will retire in the next five to 10 years. The situation at the junior management grades is even worse with only 1.8% of staff being UK nationals.

This compares with Germany which, some say, is over represented in the institutions.

A UK government spokesman said that efforts were being made to make the EU more attractive as a career option, primarily the "European Fast Stream (EFS) programme" which has the twin aims of increasing UK representation in the EU institutions and building the EU capability within the UK civil service.

The spokesman said, "The government recognises the importance of UK personnel working in the EU institutions as both a channel for UK influence and a way to help generate creative new approaches to EU policy making. The institutions and agencies of the European Union (EU) represent a unique career opportunity."

One of the goals of the new EPSO recruitment programme was to create a positive image of EU employment – culminating in the brand "EU Careers".

The Commission points out that the brand "EU Careers" is now one of the top 10 recruitment pages on Facebook globally.

For would-be applicants, you should know that there is an annual cycle of competitions and two stages to each competition–the assessment centre and computer based admission tests.

The testing is now largely competency-based, however general knowledge of the EU institutions is also required, so reading up on factual knowledge with reference books like Penguin's Companion to the European Union, and keeping yourself updated on EU political news is important.

The interview is usually held at the institution itself, where you could easily find yourself faced with an interview panel from three to eight people, of whom some may not even ask questions. Interviews can last up to 45 minutes and, though they are mainly in your mother tongue, you will generally be asked to speak for a few minutes in a second language.

A Commission spokesman told The Brussels Times, "The continuously very high number of applications for limited places in EU competitions show that the EU institutions are popular employers. They offer variety, mobility and the opportunity for public service."

With what some see as a "job for life" and all its attendant perks, the rewards of a job in the EU are all too obvious, but prospective applicants should know what to expect before they sit a concours.

To get an idea of the nature of the tests, you might be advised to first see some examples of concours already held. It could save you a lot of time and effort.....!

By Martin Banks

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