Overcoming stigma and misperceptions, one placement at a time
This World Refugee Day, the team behind Talents For The Netherlands tells us how they started a social enterprise during COVID – and great things happened
In search of new talent for the Netherlands: Wim Kerkhof, Taghreed Idris and Freek Veenemans
In 2018, at age 62, Wim Kerkhof had left a successful corporate career. His plan was to travel with his wife and enjoy his newfound freedom. That was until he spotted an article about a Swedish executive search company helping refugees to integrate into their new community by finding employment. He was struck by the tragedy of the wasted potential of highly skilled, motivated people struggling with the one thing they wanted the most: a job. He knew it was something that could work in the Netherlands too, and being a former HR professional, he felt the need to help. He put the idea to his old friend and colleague, Albert Froom, founder of Leaders Trust, one of the Netherlands’ most respected executive search consultancies. By happy coincidence, Froom was also a founding member of AltoPartners, a global alliance of executive search companies, that included Novare, the Swedish company that had inspired the idea. In early 2019, the pair travelled to Sweden to meet the team at Novare. Filled with ideas and enthusiasm for their social enterprise, they returned to the Netherlands. Realising it was going to need full-time commitment, Albert connected Wim to another old friend and HR professional, Freek Veenemans, former head of Management Development and Executive Recruitment at ING Bank and NN Group, and in February 2020, Talents for the Netherlands was born.
Drawing unashamedly on their ‘old white guy network’ they immediately got assignments to fill vacancies in the airline and event management industry.
Two weeks later, COVID hit.
“The jobs disappeared overnight,” he laughed wryly. Fortunately, with the help of Leaders Trust and their own considerable corporate network, Freek and Wim continued pitching the idea of hiring new arrivals (they don’t use the term refugee) to solve the country’s pressing labour shortage.
In June 2020, they landed a contract with the large bank in the Netherlands to fulfill a vacancy in client administration, followed by three more in rapid succession.
Says Freek: “For the most part, the response from the companies we approached was excellent. But what we didn’t have was a network to reach the new arrivals. We didn’t speak Arabic or Farsi, so there was immediately a trust deficit on the part of our target audience. We realised we needed someone who could be the bridge between corporate Netherlands and the new arrivals. Over the last two and a half years we have had three new arrivals supporting us. All three found jobs. Currently we have the support of 29-year-old Taghreed Idris, a business administration graduate, fresh out of the University of Utrecht.
“Taghreed came to the Netherlands in 2015 after fleeing Syria in the wake of a violent civil war. Having studied English literature, she got by on her English, which although rusty, was a great deal better than her Dutch, which was non-existent.”
Today, she is fluent in Dutch and delighted to be making a difference, helping other Arabic speakers to integrate into their new community.
“Our clients like the fact that we have invested in the company and run it ourselves. We take our obligation to match skills with clients very seriously, and since we were both HR executives prior to this new adventure, we have a very good understanding of what companies are looking for. This is our unique value proposition: we are not merely a jobs portal. We meet each candidate at least twice before introducing them to the client. If they get the job, we enroll them in our mentorship programme to help them navigate their new environment. So far, every one of our placements is still employed, and loving it,” he adds.
Currently they have clients looking for artisans (builders, tilers, plumbers), chefs and programmers. Technical skills are highly in demand, as are IT skills.
Says Taghreed, “Initially, we find most of our candidates via social media and referrals from social services and local government but increasingly, its word-of-mouth, so we know we are doing something right.
“Networks are crucial for new arrivals. I didn’t have one when I arrived here, and I struggled to get an internship never mind a job. My husband, an IT professional, also struggled. It gives me great pleasure to help others in a similar position. Having a job has made all the difference to my happiness and my self-esteem.”
Freek agrees: “We know that only 15% of new arrivals – status holders who have been granted permission to live and work in the Netherlands – succeed in finding paid work, and if they do, it’s mostly on a temporary basis and below their level of education. The result is often frustration and depression. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Like many European countries, we are experiencing significant labour market shortages. Even so, it is surprisingly difficult for new arrivals and employers to find each other. Misperceptions and prejudices, language barriers, cultural differences, and perceived differences in work ethic create barriers to labour market integration. We are breaking them down, one placement at a time.”
What’s their advice to companies considering hiring a new arrival?
“Just do it!” says Wim enthusiastically. “Recently we placed Ali from Turkey with a client that provides digital HR solutions. Ali spent a year in a refugee camp before getting a permit to come to the Netherlands. He then spent two years ‘couch surfing’ – sleeping on sofas in kind strangers’ living rooms. He was desperate to get a job as he wanted nothing more than to afford a house of his own. Ali is an educated, personable young man and perfectly suited to his new job as HR integration consultant. I will never forget the broad smile on his face as he walked through the door for our three-month review. He is quite literally, thrilled to have a job.
“For me Ali sums up all the reasons why hiring a new arrival makes so much sense. New arrivals are intrinsically motivated, they have skills, grit and determination and know the value of the opportunity that they’re being offered. It’s a win-win all round.”