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Episode 2 (Season 2): Andrea Bardyn and Stef Heylen on Duo For A Job

"Having a diverse pool of candidates doesn't guarantee their hire. To address this, diversity must become a management objective, with tangible accountability. The workforce should mirror the society we live in, which is far from the current reality. This won't change spontaneously; it requires deliberate corporate goals and accountability for managers."

>>> Intro

Welcome to the second episode of season 2 of 'Let's Talk About Work'. Today, we're thrilled to have Bart Wuyts, Andrea Bardyn, and Stef Heylen, who'll delve into the success factors of Duo For A Job. In this special episode, we're shaking things up a bit to spotlight the powerful testimonies of mentees. Duo For A Job plays a pivotal role in supporting job seekers and those contributing to wellbeing and inclusion. Did you know an impressive seventy percent of mentees land a job, internship, or training program after their Duo journey? Tune in for their inspiring stories.

Welcome, Andrea and Stef. Thanks for joining us this afternoon on our podcast. Alongside me, as usual, is Artemis, steering the ship. Our primary focus today is on Duo For A Job, your current endeavor. Andrea, if I've got it right, you're coordinating Duo For A Job in Turnhout, and Stef, you've had a long career at Janssen Pharmaceutica - J&J – recently retired as CEO and now enjoying some downtime between meetings, I gather. And you're mentoring one of the Duo pairs, or perhaps more?

Just one.

Fantastic, that's great! Duo For A Job has become quite well-known in Belgium. How long have you been operating in Turnhout, Andrea?

We kicked off in January 2023, so we've been at it for 6 months now. In September 2023, we celebrated our 10th anniversary as an organization, marking a decade since our inception in Brussels.

Could you briefly explain what Duo For A Job does?

At its core, Duo For A Job is an intergenerational and intercultural mentorship program. We bring together two groups: young people with non-European immigration backgrounds seeking work or education, and experienced professionals like Stef, who volunteer their expertise to support these young talents in their career or educational pursuits.

So, you've been active in Turnhout for half a year now. How many duos are currently engaged?

Here in Turnhout, we're running our first seven trajectories. In the Antwerp province, where we've been active longer, we're approaching 800 duos.

And if you reflect on that across Belgium?

We're also active in France and the Netherlands. Altogether, we're involved in more than 6000 trajectories.

Stef, what inspired you to invest your time in this?

The seed was planted during my tenure as CEO at Janssen Pharmaceutica. We realized our company lacked diversity, always hunting for the proverbial 'white raven', which is essentially a wild goose chase.

Indeed, they don't fly around.

Exactly. We also anticipated labor market shortages. For creative and innovative companies like Janssen, diversity isn't just a nice-to-have. It's been proven essential for fostering creativity and innovation. Like many companies, we learned that without proactive management, diversity initiatives just don't take off. Hiring managers tend to seek clones of themselves, a Neanderthal approach. Without active management, nothing changes, whether it's gender diversity or other forms.

That's where the idea germinated. Did you know about Duo For A Job already?

We directly reached out to Duo For A Job, learned about their approach, and formed a partnership with two objectives. Another challenge at Janssen Pharmaceutica was keeping older employees engaged towards the end of their careers. We aimed to kill two birds with one stone: encouraging senior employees to become mentors and seeing this as a potential pipeline for diverse talent. After retiring, I joined as a mentor myself.

So, other employees from the company also joined the mentorship program?

Yes. It's particularly appealing because it offers meaningful engagement for older employees, which is incredibly fulfilling.

I can imagine.

It perfectly illustrates our desired impact. We aim to bridge the gap to the labor market for young immigrants and value the experiences of those over 50. By bringing these two groups together, we create a powerful combination. We collaborate with companies and welcome volunteers, including retirees or those working part-time.

In this podcast, we've added an extra challenge. We've gathered quotes from participants in the Duo For A Job program: people from non-European backgrounds who've faced hurdles in Flanders. Let's listen to a few snippets.

[FRAGMENT 1: Kathleen from Venezuela, Olga from Russia, and Tigran from Armenia share their experiences, hinting at disappointment, despair, and feelings of being overlooked.]

We just listened to three segments: Kathleen, Olga, and Tigran sharing the challenges they face transitioning from far-off lands to here, grappling with language barriers and the maze to employment. Language stands out as a formidable barrier. They also touched upon the issue of foreign qualifications and resumes that aren't always recognized or valued here. Stef, do these issues resonate with your experience as a mentor?

Absolutely, yes. I'm mentoring a Palestinian doctor. Being a medical professional by education myself, I really appreciate Duo For A Job's effort to pair mentors and mentees thoughtfully. One of the hurdles we're currently facing is getting his medical qualifications recognized in Belgium. It's a complex process, and by early June, we'll know if his credentials will be acknowledged at a master's level, which is crucial for his future. He's shown incredible determination by redoing his entire curriculum in Poland, only to be let down by a language barrier during an oral exam. But here's someone who speaks Arabic, English, has learned Polish, and is now learning Dutch. To me, these are signs of remarkable resilience, problem-solving skills, adaptability, and a strong desire to succeed. I believe we, as employers in Flanders, make a fundamental mistake in how we draft job postings. We tend to quantify experience too much, which can lead to automatic exclusion of potential candidates by screening agencies if they don't meet those exact specifications. While certain technical skills are essential for every job, I advocate for a focus on transferable skills like problem-solving, adaptability, and resilience. This approach can uncover a wealth of experience among candidates that, with the right language support and on-the-job training, can truly make a difference.

Indeed! And that's how you bring diversity into the workplace. This issue has been a recurrent theme in many discussions here. The entire recruitment process, from job advertisements to the initial selection of candidates, is flawed in many ways.

May I add something?

Having a diverse pool of candidates doesn't guarantee their hire. To address this, diversity must become a management objective, with tangible accountability. The workforce should mirror the society we live in, which is far from the current reality. This won't change spontaneously; it requires deliberate corporate goals and accountability for managers. Ensuring workforce diversity is not automatic. During my time, I found the unconscious bias test by Banaji eye-opening, revealing how we're innately inclined to choose candidates similar to ourselves. Awareness is the first step, recognizing these biases. Another strategy is to ensure diversity within the candidate pool from the outset and to have an inclusive interview panel. These steps can significantly advance a company's diversity agenda.

Your insights come from a large corporate perspective, but SMEs can also draw lessons from this. Setting real goals, possibly seeking external expertise to review job advertisements, are steps in the right direction. With so many service providers offering support, this shouldn't be a barrier.

Andrea, do you see this too?

Yes, the stories we heard vividly illustrate the impact of companies not taking these steps, particularly on job seekers. Many who come to us have faced numerous rejections, which can severely dent one's confidence. Often, the reasons for these rejections are vague, leading to self-doubt: Is it my language skills? Discrimination? Lack of experience? This is where a mentor can make a significant difference by building and sometimes rebuilding confidence. Remember, these are individuals with vast experience from their home countries, eager to contribute to their new homeland. Mentors play a crucial role in boosting confidence, even in the face of the many rejections our mentees encounter.

It must be quite the experience, something we can hardly imagine.


To suddenly find yourself in, say, India, without speaking the language, trying to rebuild your life while you had a great job here... Starting over, and then repeatedly hearing you're not good enough. In our very first podcast episode, we hosted someone with a high-quality education from Eastern Europe - not even outside of Europe - and yet, their education and experience weren't valued here because they weren't recognized. Thankfully, they managed to turn their situation around positively.

Let's listen to the second snippet, Artemis.

[FRAGMENT 2: Needa from Palestine and Olga from Russia discuss the hurdles they've faced in their job search, being underqualified at times, overqualified at others, then finding out a driver's license is a must... Doubts from others start making you doubt yourself, creating yet another barrier to employment.]

This partly illustrates what we've been discussing: one disappointment after another. First, it's a language mismatch, then something else, even down to missing a driver's license... It's disheartening enough to make anyone lose hope.

It's tragic to see how we waste talent.

Yes. That last quote really drives it home, creating this false narrative that all positions for the highly educated are already filled. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet we let so much talent slip through our fingers.

And here, I believe, lies the strength of the Duo concept. What's expected of a mentor? To leverage your network to pry open doors that were initially closed to these individuals. To help your mentee take at least that first step. To guide them in understanding the context, to make real connections with someone in a company who can make a difference for them. This gives your mentee a fairer chance to showcase their transferable skills. It's a powerful concept, something entities like VDAB can't do. They have their job listings, but they don't take these steps alongside job seekers.

We view the mentor's role as a guide. Research shows many people with a migration background face barriers, many of which relate to social capital: your diploma, your network, your industry-specific knowledge that may (or may not) apply in a new country. This is where a mentor begins to make a difference. They help identify talents and capacities. How do we match these with the industry? How do we penetrate that industry? What language does it speak? Not just literally, but also in terms of conventions, the unwritten rules... This way, a mentor can open doors, always complementing what VDAB does. VDAB plays a crucial role, but the one-on-one personal guidance, the trust between mentor and mentee, is unique. And it's necessary for truly boosting confidence and tailoring the approach to individual talents. I'm pleased to hear the snippets - Needa was someone I guided. When I introduced her to her mentor for the first time... I introduced them, and within a minute, they were throwing around terms from biophysics - I was completely lost - I knew I was no longer needed. I saw the sparkle in her eyes: she was finally speaking with someone who understood her research and could immediately link it to potential applications here. That was crucial for her to eventually find a fit between her immense talent and the local job market. Their journey was challenging, but six months later, at the end of their trajectory, she had landed a job.

Beautiful! It reminds me of what many companies do today – it just makes sense – and we do too: assigning a mentor to newcomers. So the new colleague can find their way around the company more easily, having a bit of a pillar for understanding how things work, where to find what. We take such measures for granted, and yet, we expect people coming from the other side of the world to figure things out on their own, to navigate their way here without help? That's just not feasible.

The way you put it, as a mentor, you really look at the individual and what you can offer in terms of expertise, experience, and network. I can imagine there might come a point where you'd want to communicate the insights you've gained from your mentoring, to address issues on a broader or even policy level. To open doors not just for your mentee but because you see systemic issues in multiple mentorships. Is that the case? Or is that not yet something you're considering?

We've touched on this before. Beyond setting up duo trajectories, Duo For A Job also focuses on identifying various barriers, from credential recognition to others. Andrea, you might be better suited to explain this.

There are personal barriers like self-confidence and networking, and then there are structural barriers posed by the labor market. We can't afford to focus on just one of these areas. A mentor providing individual guidance on personal barriers is crucial, and they can also address some structural barriers - like accessibility to services or mobility issues, for example. Mentors can help navigate and devise strategies to deal with structural barriers. However, it's clear that to truly succeed, these structural barriers also need to be addressed. For everyone who comes to us, we identify the barriers they're facing. We then find a mentor match to address personal barriers. Equally important, we use insights from these mentorships to influence policy by engaging with policymakers and labor market stakeholders. We also host discussions with our mentees and mentors to bring these experiences to the forefront, as it's vital to address both individual and structural levels.

So, Duo takes on the role of not just matchmaking but also identifying structural barriers and advocating for policy changes. Is this at the city level, Flemish level, Belgian level?

Or even the European level. We're involved at the European level, too. Absolutely. Mentors make a real difference on an individual, personal level, but providing structural support requires recognizing that there's no one-size-fits-all solution. The group of job-seeking individuals with a migration background is incredibly diverse. Job seekers need companies and individuals to coach them, and this can only be successful if structural barriers like access to childcare, mobility, diploma requirements, and discrimination are not overlooked.

How do people find their way to Duo For A Job?

Currently, fifteen percent find us through word-of-mouth, which we're quite pleased with. Referrals also come through partners like VDAB, social services, language schools, and the agency for integration and citizenship.

You cater to individuals with a non-European background. Is that the sole criterion, or do you also require a certain level of education?

Not at all. Our only criteria are having a non-European background, which can be first, second, or third generation, and being between 18 and 34 years old. We deliberately focus on one of the groups most distant from the labor market: individuals with a migration background and young people. As for education, we have individuals with PhDs and others who have never attended school in their home country. We find the right mentor match for every need.

What about the mentors? What profile do you look for?

The condition is being 50 or older. We seek mentors with substantial life experience.

I'm eligible then, that's good to know.

You're very welcome. The only requirement is having professional experience to share. The more diverse our mentor group, the better our matches. We have mentors from almost every sector, including entrepreneurs, doctors, salespeople, and nurses. Diversity is key. However, participating in our training is mandatory.

That was going to be my next question.

Before starting as a volunteer, you'll undergo an intensive week-long training. It's crucial that those we connect with these young people are prepared. You need to understand what it means to be a newcomer, to have gone through migration, to be aware of unconscious biases, and to know how the labor market operates. The training is comprehensive.

I've attended many trainings in my life, and I must say, the training provided by Duo For A Job was exceptionally high quality. I was truly impressed. And it's not just the training but also the ongoing support for the duos. It's really state-of-the-art.

We take this very seriously. There are many diversity and unconscious bias trainings out there that teach you the concepts. But scientifically, we know their effects are limited unless you apply what you've learned and reflect on it. Our method caters to this by offering a week of training followed by mandatory participation in supervision sessions for our mentors, where they learn from each other and are guided by a professional moderator.

It's enlightening to see the challenges other mentor-mentee pairs face, often recurring issues like diploma recognition.

This approach is essential for maintaining quality and achieving our goals.

What I also find compelling is the six-month duration of the duo trajectory. It sets a clear goal for both parties: to achieve something within six months. This adds a sense of urgency.

How often do you meet with your mentee?

It varies, but on average, it's once a week. I often meet my current mentee at Central Station – it's convenient for him as he lives nearby, and for me, it's easy to get there by train. Recently, we've even played badminton – he's volunteering at a sports hall in Antwerp. I lost, unfortunately. But that's because the court wasn't regulation size: it was too short... I couldn't use my smashes (general laughter at the table).

It sounds like we have a competitive spirit at the table...

Let's listen to the third snippet, from Olga.

[FRAGMENT 3: Olga shares the insights she's gained from her mentor, including self-confidence, trust that things will work out, optimism, and friendship.]

What we hear confirms the impact of your work – that you're truly helping these individuals. And I assume this story isn't unique.

No, indeed, it's quite a typical story. It's how we recommend starting: getting to know each other, building trust, then analyzing strengths, weaknesses, action points, and preparing for job interviews and CVs. That's a typical trajectory. Yet, every journey is unique. At the end, we always ask what the participants gained, and in 95% of cases, they mention increased self-confidence, along with improvements in language skills and networking.

Do things ever go wrong?

It depends on what you consider 'wrong'. We closely track our duos' outcomes up to eighteen months post-participation. Seven out of ten participants find employment, training, or an internship within a year. And we only count 'employment' if it involves a contract of three months or longer. It doesn't always work out, and that's okay. Our mentors are trained to understand that the goal isn't necessarily to secure a specific job at all costs but rather to sharpen skills, boost confidence, and empower them to continue their job search independently.

Empowering people, enabling them to harness their strengths.

Another great aspect is that the initial contact is entirely non-binding for both parties. Duo tries to set up a match; you meet and talk without any pressure, and then each can decide whether to proceed. It's never forced.

Once the duo is set, the entire organization provides support. There's always someone available to help find solutions or support in terms of training, psychosocial support, etc. We quickly connect with partner organizations that can provide the right kind of assistance.

We have experience with similar initiatives here – perhaps not as focused as how you organize it. For instance, we've been running Armen TeKort Kempen for years, forming duos for people in poverty. Recently, we had a pilot project on keeping longer-term employees engaged and involved: Keeping Employees On Board, which also incorporates a form of duo methodology within the company itself. In both cases, we strive for as much equality as possible between duo members. This is crucial but not always easy. For example, the terms 'opportunity-giving' and 'opportunity-seeking' buddies in Armen TeKort already imply a hierarchy. However, as emphasized in the training, equality is the starting point – it's somewhat like an 'arranged friendship'. And with Armen TeKort, there's no requirement to achieve specific objectives within six months. How do you view the principle of equality?

It's fundamental. Without equality, success is impossible. This is stressed in the training and every step taken by the mentor and mentee, reinforcing this principle. It's crucial for us – and that's why mentors participate in intervision sessions, not mentees – mentors learn too!

And how do you experience this in practice, Stef?

The mentee leads the journey. That's the only right approach. You might have your own opinions about what you'd do in their place, but that doesn't work. It's about equipping the mentee with the tools and skills to make the right choices within their context.

How does it affect you?

I find it very fulfilling. Really. If you're looking for meaning post-retirement: highly recommended!

What have you learned?

Firstly, the confrontation with what these people have gone through. My wife is a buddy for a Syrian family, a Palestinian girl... it's unimaginable what they've experienced. Talking about resilience... It's incredibly educational and makes us realize how fortunate we are here. On the other hand, it's about making a difference. I feel like I can contribute to improving someone's life.

Stef is here with us, but Andrea, you have insight into many mentors. What impact do you observe the program has on them?

Building on what Stef said, learning about other cultures is significant. One mentor described each duo trajectory as "going on a trip without leaving the country." You gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and start to appreciate customs that were previously foreign to you. It's a fascinating way to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and I think that's the essence.

Absolutely. If there's one area where our society struggles with accepting and embracing diversity, it's probably this: our inability or unwillingness to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. It's only by doing so that we can appreciate the wealth of perspectives diversity brings.

The likelihood of the two individuals we pair in a duo meeting in a café or such is virtually nil due to differences in cultures, generations, etc. It's a tremendous privilege to facilitate these encounters, building trust between them. You're constructing societal bridges towards greater understanding.

Fantastic! Let's listen to the last snippet, as we're moving towards advice mentees have for employers.

[FRAGMENT 4: Artem from Ukraine and Vettri from India offer advice to employers, particularly about not making language proficiency an additional barrier.]

Language keeps coming up as a recurring theme.

It's a double-edged sword. Language is the key to integration, and mastering it is essential. However, the question is about expectations. If someone is unemployed and needs to learn the language, how and when can they do that? Finding a job is one of the ways to improve language skills. So, we need to reconsider how strict we should be during the hiring process.

Language is the most frequently mentioned barrier by our mentees.

We mustn't underestimate the difficulty of Dutch for non-native speakers. It's an illogical language, full of inconsistencies.

Speaking of the gentleman who learned Polish and then Dutch... Polish is already a complex language, adding Dutch to that...

Language is indeed a fundamental requirement for communication, but it would greatly benefit many of our participants if more employers were flexible about it. There are excellent programs for learning language in the workplace, providing language coaching on the job. Focus on competencies, basic attitude, motivation: these are much harder to teach than language.

I'll give an example. My current mentee, a trained doctor, is now volunteering at a general practitioner's office for Medicine for the People in Deurne. It's a fantastic way for him to familiarize himself with Belgian healthcare, improve his Dutch, and learn medical terminology. And it's beneficial for them too: his knowledge of Arabic and Polish (which apparently is quite similar to Ukrainian) adds value.

From day one, he's been incredibly valuable there, able to communicate better with certain patients than the doctors themselves...

It's a call for employers to be more flexible with often stringent language requirements and to consider how to facilitate language learning on the job. I strongly believe in this. I think the movement towards inclusive business practices has many positive aspects. I'm not saying there aren't challenges – adjustments are needed, and it's not just one-sided.

But as mentioned earlier, the satisfaction mentors gain from engaging with other cultures, becoming more familiar with them, is what happens in the workplace. Working with newcomers teaches us to respect differences, and this will be a significant lever for societal progress. Employers can play a crucial role in this.

I completely agree.

I feel we're nearing the end of our conversation. I'll glance at Artemis, who often has a final question.

I was reminded of a previous discussion where it was noted that the aspect of 'activation' increasingly falls on employers' shoulders, who aren't always equipped for this. Does Duo For A Job help bridge this gap?

Yes, our mentors are informed during their training about various tools available, such as language training in the workplace, job coaching, etc. There's a lot out there, but it's not always easy for employers to see the forest for the trees. Our mentors often include references to such tools in the CV or cover letter. For example, they might mention the possibility of an IBO (Individual Vocational Training) trajectory with language support, or they might reach out to employers in their network highlighting a top candidate for a vacancy where language might be an issue, but all other requirements are met, and then suggest considering hiring this candidate with the support of available resources x, y, or z. Given that our mentors understand both the employer's perspective in the Flemish context and the mentee's side, they indeed can bridge that gap.

Or, taking it a step further: a warm invitation to employers to become mentors themselves. That way, you gain firsthand knowledge of the support available.

Absolutely, I can only endorse that. And you'll find it brings significant traction to your company.

Employers everywhere: unite and become mentors at Duo For A Job.

Thank you, Andrea and Stef, for this incredibly insightful conversation.

Thank you.


You've been listening to 'Let's Talk About Work,' a podcast by WEB-Blenders. Our discussions revolve around work, the path to employment, workplace well-being, and all related topics. Find us on your favorite podcast platform and at www.blenders.be/podcast. Follow us on social media: on LinkedIn on Podcast Let's Talk About Work, and on Instagram as blenders.podcast.letstalk. Stay updated through the Blenders newsletter. Were you intrigued? Did this conversation spark any thoughts? Would you like to be one of our next guests? Let us know at info@blenders.be, and you might soon join us at the table.