For the first time, the Brussels region is proposing a ‘bilingual retail salesperson’ training course comprising 15 weeks of practical training and a six-week period of work experience in a supermarket.

In Brussels, more than one of two job vacancies request bilingual skills. Speaking French is not enough; it is essential to be bilingual in both national languages, French and Dutch. Bilingualism is expected of most professionals, such as accountants, electricians and bakers.

However, employees who are fluent in both languages are rare, especially in professions of the trade and sales sectors. Although linguistic requirements of store chains have increased, many young unskilled people are still recruited in the sales sector. ‘In the Brussels region, the retail sales sector accounts for 44 000 jobs, or one job out of 16,’ explains Dominique Michel, Managing Director of Comeos, the Belgian trade and services federation. ‘Each year, large retailers seek to recruit young people. However, we are witnessing an increase in skill requirements: simply saying hello, smiling and handing over a receipt is no longer sufficient. Retail salespersons must be able to enter into dialogue and provide detailed information, not just in French and Dutch but also in English or German for very demanding customers.’

This has become so important that, for the first time, Bruxelles Formation and VDAB (the Flemish employment authorities) have decided to offer job seekers bilingual training courses, dispensed both in French and Dutch. At the moment, this initiative is targeting retail sales, with 12 trainees following a course of 15 weeks, including a six-week period of work experience in a supermarket. The course combines practical work, role play and work experience. Participants, most of them without a school-leaving diploma, had to pass a test in both languages and a basic calculation test, and had to agree on flexible working hours. After training is completed, trainees will carry out a work placement in a company of their choice.

At the end of this first module, regional Employment Minister, Didier Gosuin, is hoping for a return-to-work rate of 80%. For VDAB Brussel and Bruxelles Formation, this pilot project is the beginning of future cooperation. The two bodies are already working on other bilingual training courses, including a bilingual secretary training due to start in September this year.