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Unique programme helps refugees settle and find work in Utrecht

At the end of 2019, the City of Utrecht, in partnership with various specialists, introduced a unique job seeker development program for those whose limited knowledge of Dutch language and culture was proving an obstacle to finding employment. The unique feature was that participants with a low language level started work immediately, speeding up their language development and reducing cultural differences.

The City of Utrecht was looking for a solution for job seekers for whom language and culture still form an obstacle to the labour market, such as refugees or immigrants with a low language level. “We wanted to start with them earlier and not separate language and cultural development from other course components but rather integrate it. We sought external specialists with whom we could develop this development program through co-creation,” says strategic account manager Jorinde Bliekendaal-Hof of the City of Utrecht.

Integrated Approach

Together with Randstad, KIT Intercultural Professionals and language school TopTaal, an integrated approach was developed. The main premise was that participating in society contributes to people’s happiness and well-being and to the development of language and social skills. The programme focused on a practical introduction to the labour market and the continuous strengthening of language and cultural understanding among participants. In addition to culture training for participants, employers were also actively guided to ensure they had realistic expectations and to provide proper guidance for the workers. “An employer would prefer to deploy people quickly, while perhaps a work experience position is needed first,” outlines Berthold Ponsteen, manager of public-private partnerships at Randstad, “Those expectations need to be clear up front, and we also help to create work experience placements in the first place.”

Matching Worker and Sector

Together, the municipality and Randstad make a selection of candidates, following a language test and a focus on their motivation level and ability to learn. In November 2019, the first pilot group of over ten participants began. The language education is tailored to the sector where they will be working and KIT helps with recognizing and bridging cultural differences. Bliekendaal-Hof: “Otherwise, misunderstandings between participants and employers can arise. For example, when a participant says ‘yes’ out of respect to a supervisor but does not actually understand something, or when a manager finds a participant too ‘hesitant’, while that is respectful in his or her culture. Then clear assignments are needed and a mutual recognition of differences.”

Dedicated Supervision

After a six-month programme with one school day a week and additional work, the goal is for participants to remain with the employer, either in direct service or through Randstad. The integrated approach and per candidate customization are monitored during the programme by dedicated Randstad supervisor. Bliekendaal-Hof: “This turns out to be an important success factor. We experienced this during the first pilots. In the second group we adjusted the selection of candidates and gave Randstad a larger role. These pilots are meant to be learned from and in this way, our approach can grow. That is why we, as municipalities, continue to think along to make the approach stronger together, and choose not to ‘outsource’ to our specialized partners.”

Initial Conclusions

This new approach currently focuses on the hospitality, healthcare and logistics sectors, with the aim of expanding into other sectors in the future. It is part of eight national pilots of the ‘Verdere Integratie op de Arbeidsmarkt’ programme from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment that will undergo proper evaluation in the future.

It is still a little too early for definitive results, but some things are already clear. Bliekendaal-Hof: “Language development is accelerated by being on the shop floor, and even with a lower language level it is possible to start.” In addition, Ponsteen expects that at least half of the participants will remain in permanent employment after their course: “The other participants will also have taken a big step forward, and the approach can be tailored to more promising sectors.”

In addition, there was another qualitative result: When the second logistics group started in March 2020, it was right at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, “We managed to have classes online, which allowed education to continue. Without the great effort of everyone involved, this would not have been possible,” says Bliekendaal.


“Through my work I get to know Dutch and more people.”

Mostafa Debel (34), originally from Damascus in Syria, started the programme in March 2020. He has been in the Netherlands for just over 5 years. “Finding work proved difficult because of the language and because applying for a job works differently here,” says Mostafa, “Through the programme I learned more about the Dutch language and culture, and how to apply for jobs.”

After work experience in the University Medical Center warehouse in Utrecht, he got a job at Studio Wae which makes geometric carpet tiles and wall panels. “I help with sorting, loading and unloading, assembly and have learned to cut carpet tiles with a computer-controlled machine. It is similar to my work in Syria, I’m no longer on benefits and I’m standing on my own feet. That feels really good, by working here, I have got to know some nice colleagues and my Dutch is improving. They have also taught me how to play table tennis!”

A Dutch version of this story first appeared on the ‘Samen Werken voor Werken’ website.