February 6, 2010

Addressing comments and questions

I just found about 75 old comments to this blog that never got published, which is good since about 90% of them were spam. But to other people who commented, I'm sorry I never got back to you! There were some nice words or questions going back um, 6 months. Oops. Still, thanks for reading. To everyone who asked me a question I didn't answer, I apologize. When I moved to Amsterdam I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if it weren't for strangers offering me advice or sharing knowledge, both on the web and in person. I know I've been slacking in the department of Sharing Knowledge, and I feel pretty bad about that. There is some knowledge I'd like to share, but it's not about how to find an apartment or to explain how to open a bank account. This is about what most of you have been asking about one way or another - what it's like to simply be in Amsterdam during this particular period, and what you can expect if you want to make this your home. So this is from my personal experience.

A friend of mine from Italy moved to Amsterdam about 6 weeks ago, and like a ton of other people in this city, he's looking for a job in a very, very tight job market. He's discouraged and frustrated. What I've seen in the past year or year in a half is this: a huge, scary moment when the crisis really seemed to mean absolutely no jobs, salary freezes, etc. That began around this time last year, and lasted about 6-7 months. I think everyone was just very scared, including employers. I know of places that went out of business and I did have a couple of friends that lost jobs. It certainly didn't hit as hard in Amsterdam as it did in New York, but it did hit. The people that were the most affected were recent graduates. Around the late summer and early fall of 2009, things seemed to be better. I knew more and more people who had chosen to quit their jobs because they had found something better, or were choosing to go freelance (by the way, freelancing is a really great thing to do in the Netherlands - I should write a whole post on that sometime). That's a good sign, it meant that companies were starting to hire again, and work was still in demand. But at the same time, there's a much, much bigger pool of applicants for every job. Employers are putting people through an interview process the likes of which I've never seen before - it's not uncommon to hear of someone going for 4, 5, 6 interviews, involving extensive personality testing. It's not uncommon for employers to ask their interview candidates to put together presentations on the first interview, or write up a report, and that's only the beginning. A job interview, even for a pretty basic position, can take days and days to prepare for. I do see the economy improving here, but it's a very slow, slow process.

So this friend of mine is part of the pool of experienced and smart people who are having a hard time, and the look on his face when he talks about the search is a very familiar look, something I've seen before. It's a fact that this is a hard time to move to Amsterdam and find a good, steady job. One of the hardest parts is getting over that first hump, getting to learn the city and make connections. The next hardest thing might be learning to take yourself and your skills seriously, even though it seems impossible to find a job (which will of course deflate your ego and make you question everything, which I've done ten thousand times). There are still a lot of gaps in Amsterdam that need to be filled, there are getting to be more jobs out there that are waiting to be filled, and best of all, there are jobs out there waiting to be created. Setting up your own business really does work in this country. If you can find out what Amsterdam needs and fulfill it, you will be able to find work, and you don't need to speak a word of Dutch to get started. But this means you first need to live here and get to know this city, I mean, really get to know this city. Things that weren't possible in your former country are possible here (and vice versa of course), but you have to ask, and you have to stay confident.

Don't spend 10 hours a day studying Dutch, thinking that will be the ticket to your next job. If you don't speak Dutch, it's going to take a long time to learn. Maybe if you did it every day for 3 months, you would become pretty good, but you're still nowhere near fluent (unless you're coming from Germany, in which case you'll pick it up much more quickly). Of course, you should try to learn the language, especially if you have free time. But in the meantime, while you're searching for work, focus on English. If you're not a native English speaker, try to practice as much as possible and get used to the different types of accents. If you're more used to American accents but can't understand a word when a British person talks, try to find a British friend and adjust your ears to that accent, because you're going to hear it a lot. Make sure you have a native English speaker look over your CV. Dutch people in Amsterdam often won't judge you for not speaking Dutch (no one expects that you would have studied Dutch in school), but they will judge you if you can't speak good English. It's weird.

I wouldn't discourage someone from moving to Amsterdam during this period, but I would offer a lot of warnings. The crisis hasn't vanished. There's a lot of competition. But if you're in the job-searching position, especially if you're new to the city, keep in mind there are a lot more options than your basic 9-5, monday-friday job working for a big company with a proper job contract. The most important thing that you can do for yourself is take time and be patient (says me, one of the most impatient people on earth!), and keep an open mind.

I'll try to go more into freelancing and setting up your own business and the DAFT agreement in my next post. Since this is the topic I'm asked about most in comments and emails, I want to try and help - just remember, I'm certainly not an expert. I'm just someone who lives here, and everything I'm saying is only based on my experience. I'm 100% positive you could find another person who would disagree with everything I say, but that's okay. There are enough discouraging people out there and enough negativity in general. I have no reason to add to the discouragement because again, I am here. It's all worked out so far for me, and I'm no one special.

Usually the damp, foggy nights here in Amsterdam are nothing to get excited about. However, last night I was really struck by surprise. The city looked beautiful. Dark and foggy in a way I haven't seen in a long time, it made everything seem more mysterious. It was around 3.30am and absolutely silent on the tiny little street I was on (except for the noise still coming from the apartment where I had been). When there are moments like that, how could I discourage someone from moving here and giving it a shot?

When it does eventually work out, it's all worth it.

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