The Province of West Flanders – as it name says, in the western part of Belgium, bordering the North Sea – is characterized by a unique ecosystem of SMEs (mostly family-owned companies) and multinationals such as CNH, Barco, Bekaert etc. At the end of 2016, the province counted 115.013 active companies, 21% of the Flemish total. They achieved a turnover of 89,6 billion euro.
Throughout the province you will find many creative manufacturers and companies specialized in mechatronics, the middle part is known for its agrifood businesses. Thanks to the North Sea, the coastal area has been witnessing a great development of the green and blue energy sector over the last years.
West Flanders has a very important industrial sector. The share of the industry in the provincial GDP is 20,3% (2015 figures) compared to only 13,8% for the whole of Flanders. With 28.115 employees, the metalworking industry is the largest industrial sector, followed by the food-processing and textile sectors. The food companies of the province represent 26,8% of all workers of the sector in Flanders. The province’s share in the textile sector is even 54,4%.
Another characteristic is the very low unemployment rate, the lowest in Flanders. At the end of September, 5,6% of the province’s inhabitants were registered as employment seekers, against 7,1% in the rest of Flanders. The percentage is even lower in the center of the province: the unemployment rate in the borough of the city of Tielt is only 3,8%. This situation of full employment makes it difficult for businesses to find the right staff.
Voka – Chamber of Commerce and Industry of West Flanders: what we do for the region and its companies
It would lead us too far to sum up all the Chamber’s actions, so let’s pick out three that give you a better idea of our priorities.
1. Create a link between higher education and businesses through dual learning
Businesses in West Flanders are in urgent need of finding highly qualified technical profiles, but these are in short supply in the province. It is therefore important to match the needs of businesses, schools and students as much as possible and to promote cooperation between all actors. In this context, the Chamber and VIVES (college for higher education) launched a unique pilot project around dual education. 60 first-year students are acquiring skills and experience on the production floor of a company in the region of Bruges-Ostend. Bert Mons, CEO of the Chamber, emphasizes the importance of this pilot project for businesses: “By learning and working in a real life production environment, students get familiar with the business world at an early stage. It also opens the door to future job opportunities for them.”
2. Inspire businesses on innovation
The Chamber is convinced that innovation and internationalization are the keys to growth. Therefore it regularly organizes inspiration sessions and trips, both inside and outside the region. Together with Designregio Kortrijk and a group of 40 business leaders and policymakers, the Chamber visited Tallinn in Estonia. During the World Economic Forum, the country was awarded the prize for the most entrepreneurial country in Europe. It built a very strong e-government, a real trailblazer in terms of e-services. The services sector represents more than 71% of the GDP and entrepreneurship is a second nature for Estonians. Veerle De Mey, director of the advocacy department at the Chamber, summarizes the trip as follows: “During these three days, we discovered a surprising and sparkling city which embraces its entrepreneurs in every possible way. Estonia’s digital leadership is noticeable in tangible matters, even for foreigners. For instance, a non-Estonian can create his own business through the e-Residency program in 10 minutes.”
3. Take advantage of a location near the North Sea
A good mobility – on the road, on the water and in the air – is crucial if we want to develop Flanders into the logistical gateway of Western Europe. “A good access to the Port of Zeebrugge is essential in order not to hamper our growth”, says the Chamber. According to figures of the National Bank of Belgium, ports are the economic drivers of Flanders. About 300 companies are active in the port hinterland, reaching as far as the city of Bruges. Together, they create a direct added value of around 954 million euro. Add to that another 854 million euro of indirect value added. Direct port employment is good for 11.110 direct jobs and 16.000 indirect jobs. Each year, 300 million euro is invested in the further development of the port. Zeebrugge is therefore of great importance for the province of West Flanders and for the Flemish region. In 2014, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of West Flanders, APZI (the association of port businesses in Zeebrugge) and the port community of the city of Ostend set up a new body: the Havencel West-Vlaanderen (the port committee West Flanders). Its’ mission is to promote the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend and to solve the difficulties businesses may encounter at the Flemish, federal and European level. The development of the off-shore industry is also one of its priorities.
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About the Chamber
Voka – Chamber of Commerce and Industry of West Flanders represents more than 3.400 businesses in West-Flanders. Together, they stand for 68% of private employment and 66% of the province’s added value. The Chamber is therefore the most representative business network in West Flanders. The organization defends the interests of businesses towards stakeholders and politicians, gives customized advice on a wide range of topics, brings each year hundreds of entrepreneurs and employees together at dozens of networking events and helps them with topics such as international business making, digitalization and innovation.