What is a traineeship?
Twice a year, the European Commission in Brussels takes on around 600 trainees (also called ‘stagiaires’) to work for a 5-month stint at its various departments and agencies. Trainees are generally in their mid-to-late-20s, have completed a Master’s degree, have spent time living and working abroad, speak a few languages, and have a largely positive opinion of the European Union. After all, the main intention of many of them is to gain a job at the EU Institutions.
The traineeship or stage is thus often seen as a foot in the door. Finding a job in Brussels depends on ‘who you know’, and therefore networking is important. The work you will do as a trainee is not necessarily that relevant for what you might go on to do afterwards (unless, by a stroke of luck, you are working in the precise Unit of your DG or Agency in which you want to remain). It varies between departments, but largely the work you will have to do as a trainee will not seem overly taxing, especially if you have had a full-time job before.
No, the main reason for doing the traineeship, other than the clout it adds to your CV, is to gain contacts, both social and professional. If you are looking for career fulfilment only in the work in and of itself, then you may be disappointed (much like any other job, really). This is not intended as a criticism of the traineeship system; far from it. It is simply important to know what to expect and where to focus your efforts.
For a more quick and dirty account of life as a trainee, it is a good idea to read this article from VICE.
The application process is long and time-consuming. For a traineeship that begins in October, it is necessary to apply by the end of January. Applicants must fill out numerous statements of motivation, describe in detail everything they did at their previous jobs, explain where they acquired the languages they claim to speak, and account for their technical and computer skills. This is the first step. Once the Commission has looked through the applications, around 1300 candidates are pre-selected to be placed on the ‘Blue Book’, so long as they can provide copies of language certificates, letters of reference and university diplomas to cover everything they mentioned in their application form. If these documents are all provided on time and are legitimate, the candidate is placed in the ‘Blue Book’.
The Blue Book is an ordered list of candidates. You receive a certain number of ‘points’ related to the relevancy of your work experience, studies and languages. The more points you have, the higher up the list you are. And the higher up you are, the more chance you have of being contacted by one of the Commission’s departments to offer you a traineeship.
This means that simply being in the Blue Book is not a guarantee that you have been accepted to the traineeship. Commission staff may contact you to ask if you wish to work for their department. (The correct answer, as the astute applicant will realise, is always ‘yes’, even if the department in question is Fisheries.) This, again, is still not a guarantee. You may also have to undergo a phone interview before receiving an offer.
Lobbying is common practice at the EU Institutions. It forms an important, if problematic, part of the policymaking process at the EU. There are also conflicting opinions on whether lobbying is necessary to obtain a traineeship. Should you contact the departments you would like to work for once you have been placed on the Blue Book? The answer seems to be: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some of my contemporary trainees found it useful to spray out numerous emails explaining why such-and-such a department is perfect for them. Strangely, however, it appears that the department the applicant writes to is rarely the same department that subsequently makes them an offer.
Personally, a chronic case of British/Scottish reservedness, and a morbid abhorrence for trumpeting one’s own achievements meant that I could not bring myself to lobby. Apocryphal stories of applicants who sent deliveries of cupcakes to prospective EU departments sent a shiver of revulsion down my spine. Surely my painstakingly filled-out application form would speak for itself? I don’t know if these industrious bakers got a place in the end. All I know is that I finally received a traineeship offer without having lobbied; then again, this was also not my first attempt.
But take heart at that, because even if you don’t receive an offer the first time, you are always free to apply to the Commission again at the next round. And no doubt by the next time you apply, your CV will have been enriched by further languages, university qualifications or work experience, all of which adds up to those all-essential points on the mysterious Blue Book.
You can apply for a traineeship here.