telling it how it is

The chance to travel the world and tackle fresh challenges sounds glamorous and exciting and this is what the teams at Jan De Nul Group (JDN), a leading dredging and marine engineering group, get to do year in year out. Yet this is also a tough job, with few creature comforts and many months away from friends and family. So as Philip Piron, HR Manager describes, JDN’s employer brand is built around being absolutely clear about the rigors of the life that lies ahead, as well as the rewards that people might not get elsewhere – ‘telling it how it is’. But with engineers in short supply at home and fewer people prepared to spend so much of their careers separated from their families, JDN recognizes that it now has to be more flexible and accommodating to retain the people with the expertise it relies on.

The struggle to push back the waters and reclaim precious land is in the blood in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s therefore little wonder that so many of the world’s leading dredging groups hail from these countries. 

With an annual turnover of more than €2 billion, JDN is the biggest. Most people won’t know the company’s name, but they will recognize its pioneering achievements such as the land reclamation and seafront protection of Dubai’s iconic Palm Islands. Recent projects have stretched from new locks in the Panama Canal to a new port complex in Western Australia. 

JDN employs more than 5,000 people, having doubled its workforce over the past ten years. The engineers, translators, accountants, lawyers, ships’ officers and members of its project teams, most of whom are recruited in the Benelux, are constantly on the move. In addition to dredging and related areas, JDN operates a specialist construction division.


“We’ve always been a very self-sufficient company,” says Mr Piron. “We’ve grown organically without the need for acquisition and this dedication to building from within is reflected in our workforce. We don’t want to depend on others. Apart from some junior crew members, all the members of our project teams are directly employed by us – we use very few contract staff. We even design our own ships and equipment. Crucially, we also promote from within. We want the people who lead JDN to know the company, know its mentality and be known by the people here. Even I who work in HR, a profession with a lot of movement from one company to another, have been here for nearly 25 years.”

not for the fainthearted

So what kind of people is JDN looking to attract and what is the role of employer brand in this? “We’re an expanding company that’s always looking for more recruits. To reach targets, our recruitment people could be painting a picture of an exotic life that takes people from Australia to Argentina. But that isn’t enough anymore. Ten years ago, the opportunity for an engineer to have a global career would have been a key differentiator. But rapid globalization has turned the world into a village, so the chance to travel and experience different cultures are now much more common,” says Mr Piron. “Moreover, we need to be realistic about what recruits can expect when they join us if we want to attract the right people and retain them for the long-term. They’re going to be working in inhospitable conditions; they’re going to be on top of each other for months on end and they’re unlikely to be home for family events such as their mum and dad’s 50th anniversary. So the right personality is as important as a good degree. We want flexible, resilient, no-nonsense people that can thrive in the kind of environments we operate in and relish the challenges. Applicants can have all the right qualifications, but if they don’t fit in, we won’t hire them”.

JDN’s commitment to ‘telling it how it is’ includes assigning employees to go along with its recruitment teams to talk to students studying at their old universities about what to expect. The JDN life is also something that is communicated from one generation to the next, with one family in particular having supplied four generations of people to the company. “Rather than being something we’ve created as a publicity exercise, our employer brand is the logical consequence of the kind of work we do and the people that are mentally and physically equipped to carry it out,” says Mr Piron. “The compensations for the rigors of this rugged expatriate life are excellent training, good pay and a company that supports them through their careers. That’s why we’ve consistently performed so well in the Randstad Award surveys over the years.”

adapting to modern realities

Nonetheless, Mr Piron is realistic about the changing expectations of the new generations coming into the workforce. “People used to work abroad for 15-20 years before coming back for less physically demanding or more family-friendly work in our Benelux offices. Now, people want to settle back in their home countries after as little as five years. With engineers in short supply in Benelux countries they know that they can get a job,” he says. “We don’t want to lose their skills and experience. We want to keep the supply of people coming through the ranks to senior management. So we’re prepared to offer them opportunities in areas such as design or business development. We support this by offering broad training that enables people to operate in many different roles. With more and more of our work centering on specialist advice, there are also more opportunities within the home market. So while the world and the people we recruit are changing, that sense of JDN as a family is still as strong as ever.”

employer branding at Jan de Nul

Jan De Nul ranked 6th place in relative attractiveness in the 2013 Randstad Awards and has consistently been among the leaders in recent years. It scored high among Belgian companies in relative attractiveness (42%), but low on name recognition (25%). JDN ranked among the top three companies in Belgium for competitive salary and benefits, career progression, pleasant work atmosphere, long-term job security, financial health and strong management. It also scored well for interesting job content, good training and good CSR. In Belgium, the top three criteria why people choose an employer are long-term job security, financial health and interesting job content.