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Thomas Dermine on regenerating his home town of Charleroi
Harvard graduate Thomas Dermine is Belgium's new state secretary for scientific policy, economic recovery and strategic investments. WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine interviewed him last year, after he received the Destrée Institute’s Bologna-Lemaire Walloon of the Year award for his role in boosting the economy of his home town of Charleroi.
What does the award signify?
Although it was awarded to me, it’s really an award for the collective efforts of my team and me at Catch to accelerate job creation in Charleroi. The decline of heavy industries across Europe hit Charleroi particularly hard because of their concentration in the region. The city’s socio-economic condition then reached a crisis point in 2016 with the thousands of job losses that came with closure of the Caterpillar plant. The plan is to generate 6,000-8,000 jobs by 2025 in new industries. In May 2019 we were slightly ahead, having already reached more than two-thirds of our objective, so we are confident we can do it.
What are the challenges?
The new jobs are completely different from the blue-collar jobs that are disappearing. All sorts of creative and biotech industries had started appearing in Charleroi by 2016, but there was a paradox – their growth was impeded because they couldn’t find people with the right qualifications and skills locally to fill positions, yet there was huge unemployment in Charleroi among young people. The biggest challenge remains changing curricula, designing empowerment programmes and training to make sure we have the right workforce for these jobs. The challenge at the heart of all this is to break down the walls between public and private institutions, and between people.
The Walloon government asked you to help create the plan in 2016, after a paper you wrote at Harvard in 2014 exploring measures to reduce youth unemployment in Belgium. You had a high-profile consultancy career in London when they called. What made you decide to leave it for Charleroi?
Where I find meaning in my professional life is very important to me. Charleroi is my home town and the city of my heart. I felt there was deep value in stepping up to the difficult challenge of working on its socio-economic development.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
When I was a teenager, one of my professors in Charleroi told me, “If you’re the smartest kid at the table, then you’re not at the right table”. It led me in deciding whether to return to Charleroi. I asked myself where I would be most challenged and learn the most.
What’s your work-life philosophy?
Life is too short not to do the things you love. If you love the things you do, you will naturally be good at them.
What’s next? Will you stay in Charleroi?
I will stay. I have already moved my whole family out here. I’m not too worried about finding another interesting challenge here, in the public or private sector. I left Charleroi when I was 18 for university. I came back at 31 and I’m very surprised by how dynamic the city is. There’s a vibrant cultural scene, a huge city centre renewal, and a buzz that makes you feel like you’re at the centre of something happening. And it’s practically an extended suburb of Brussels, only 40 minutes away, cheaper to live in, with good schools and a good quality of life.
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine