Last week, Laura Tarragona-Saez –Head of Unit at the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) – shared what brought her to work in the International Public Sector. In this edition, Laura focuses on the European Institutions’ recruitment process and what it takes to work for them.
1. Nicest fact/surprise about your organisation / employer? Seen from afar, the EU Institutions might seem very far away and distant. The nicest and most surprising fact is how human, colourful and open and fun it is to work in the Institutions. One of the really surprising aspects is that in an Institution like the Commission, people would expect to have to follow lots of rules. Whilst we are rules driven, the discussions on a day-to-day level are very open and very stimulating.
2. What do you look for in candidates?
There are two phases in our recruitment process: The first phase is the selection procedure. To enter this phase, people need at least a Bachelors Degree and they must speak at least two languages – one EU official language as well as English, French or German. Candidates also need very strong cognitive abilities – for generalists, for example, the first part of the selection process is very competitive and you will be tested on your verbal, abstract and numerical reasoning skills. It is only the top few per cent of applicants who will get through this. You must take this seriously as it is challenging. The tests we use are not very different from other international standard tests. There are lots of commercial providers for training, but you can practice on the EPSO website without spending money. The tests are done under time pressure – you may be confronted with maths you haven’t done in many years so you have to prepare! Only the very highest-scoring candidates are invited to the Assessment Centre stage. At the second stage, the Assessment Centre, we test for seven competencies – analysing and problem solving, prioritising, being able to deliver quality results, communicating, being able to work with others, resilience and also leadership (for administrators). Candidates must demonstrate a good combination of these skills. They need to be able to conduct these exercises in their second language. It is not easy but the possibilities that are open to people who pass this selection procedure means that it is well worth the effort and the preparation. Then, once you are on the Reserve List, the “job interviews” happen. One of the main things that recruiters are looking for is what kind of experience the candidate brings. From a personal perspective, I would say that I am looking for people who are highly intelligent but also show a degree of empathy – people who have a vision and can see the big picture but who can also see things from others’ point of view. I want more than anything people who are team players and, if I can be really picky, because I work in communications, I want someone who drafts like Shakespeare! Being an excellent draftsman will really help people. I also want to see people who have a degree of enthusiasm for the EU “Project.” It is hard work here. One recent recruit said to me, “Laura, I love my new job, but no one told me how hard the work is!” – it is hard, both in terms of intensity and of the demands made on your intellectual and other abilities. We are also in a phase of austerity so we are shrinking – the Commission hasn’t grown in net terms since 2007. The only new posts were the ones agreed upon to accommodate enlargement. Since 2012 it has actually shrunk – so we need people who understand that we are working for Europe’s future and if we need to, we will go the extra mile.
3. Funniest answer to an interview question?
The funniest thing that has happened to me was when I sat in an interview panel and half way through the candidate looked at the Chairman and said, “I thought that this was the interview for another post!” It was funny – in a weird way. You thought that people would come well prepared – but somehow this candidate had not realised what they were there for. In this case, we offered to stop the interview but the candidate wanted to carry on, as it was good practice and they might get an offer. In the end they didn’t – the job description did cite “attention to detail” as a prerequisite for the role!
4. Most inspiring remark/answer from a candidate?
I once came across someone who successfully applied for a very demanding job as a lawyer. He had come from a very underprivileged background and had worked as a construction worker to pay for his studies. That impressed me very much.
5. Words of wisdom for your future applicants?
I wish I was wise! Having talked to a lot of people who are thinking about a career in the EU, I’d say, reflect very carefully on why you want to come here. I don’t want to discourage anyone – and if I could do it again, I would definitely do it again! – but you need to think about what it means to relocate to Brussels or Luxembourg and to make your life as an ex-pat. People sometimes underestimate this. Come to the city for a weekend, and then talk to people who are working for the institutions. Get an insider view of what it is like every day and then make your choice. You have to believe in the EU and have a commitment to work for the EU. If you know you are OK with relocating, then, in my view, it will be the best decision you will ever make – but it is not a step you should take lightly. The other part is that if you have the commitment, then don’t let the numbers discourage you. Apply and prepare yourself. Once you make it to the Assessment Centre, just be yourself because the Assessment Centre is an opportunity to show who you are – it will help you gain a valuable insight. Whether you are recruited or not, you get a competency passport which helps you see where your strengths are and where there might be room for improvement. In any case, for someone who is interested in public sector, international work, and who has a commitment and love for the EU, working for the EU Institutions is…well, there is absolutely no better place!
6. Lastly, would you do the same again?