The staff shortages are back, so how do you bring in people?

June 14, 2021 by No Comments

Gerhard ten Hove had hoped for some extra summer turnover. Since he bought the building for his café-restaurant more than three years ago, it has been closed half the time. First there was a long renovation, later came the corona measures. All his savings and retirement money is in it – and his wife’s.

Yet he had to keep the doors of his Boer’n Bistro ‘t Peuleke closed for the past two weeks. He couldn’t help it. Too many employees of his bistro, between Oldenzaal and Rossum in Twente, were on holiday. And replacements are hard to find. “Then we had to say with pain in our hearts: everyone is off for two weeks. And then we hope to be able to go full throttle again.”

The staff shortages are back. Shopping streets are full of job postings, employers are fighting over programmers and restaurants are already bringing chefs from Spain. Shortly after the outbreak of the corona pandemic, large layoffs were predicted. But the support packages from the government, such as wage support and fixed-cost subsidy, worked better than expected. The great wave of unemployment failed to materialize. Many employers are shy about staff.

This is only expected to get worse. Many people are retiring and relatively few young people are taking their place. As a result of this aging population, the number of 15 to 75-year-olds (the ‘potential working population’) will shrink in the coming decades for the first time in centuries – unless many migrants come here. Meanwhile, the number of positions continues to grow. The inevitable result: the available staff is being pulled even harder.

Train traffic controllers on vacation

On the map of the UWV benefits agency, the Netherlands is red again – the color that indicates a tight labor market. There are now an average of 1.33 unemployed per vacancy, according to CBS figures. Before the corona crisis, at the end of 2019, there were even fewer: 1.06. But the difference with the beginning of 2015 is big: then there were still five unemployed for every vacancy.

In the retail and hospitality sectors, shortages are now more acute than in 2019. Many former staff have found new work during the lockdown periods, for example in test streets and vaccination locations. In other professions, the shortages have never gone away. For example, there is still a lot of demand for IT specialists, technicians, teachers, specialized nurses, but also for train traffic controllers, for example.

That became apparent in recent weeks. Several train connections were canceled, including the intercity between Amersfoort and Amsterdam and the sprinter between Utrecht and Baarn. This could happen more often in the next two months, warned ProRail. The rail manager now has about 750 train traffic controllers. That is not enough to keep all train traffic on the right track. There are approximately sixty vacancies. As soon as train traffic controllers go on holiday, such as now, or have to stay at home with corona, this immediately leads to problems.

What can employers do to prevent doomsday scenarios such as at Prorail and Boer’n Bistro ‘t Peuleke? How do they get enough staff in this tight labor market?

In theory it’s simple: attract new staff with an inspiring workplace and good benefits – and then see how to keep them. That starts with a good salary and future prospects. “Income and security are the basic conditions,” says labor sociologist Fabian Dekker, affiliated with the Rotterdam research agency SEOR. “If you pay poorly, you will notice.”

The practice is sometimes unruly. For example, the wages and rates that cooks can charge are now rising, because there is an acute shortage of them. “You pay around 40 euros per hour for a cook,” says Ten Hoven of bistro ‘t Peuleke. He can’t afford that. “Then we will price ourselves out of the market.” So his wife is now in the kitchen.

And for professions that already have high wages, such as in IT and technology, wages are not everything. “You can always get a little more from your neighbor,” says Erwin Coolen. With his Bureau ECHT, he recruits students for (future) jobs in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms. He prefers to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation. That they are “working on cool things.” And he holds out the prospect of their freedom and responsibility. “That works best.”

Something is going terribly wrong on the employer side

Fabian Dekker occupational sociologist

The content of the work is just as important, says occupational sociologist Dekker: „Is it challenging and varied? We are getting more and more highly educated people, they want to continue to develop.” The ‘softer working conditions’ also count, such as flexible working hours and the ability to combine work and care.

That also helps to keep staff committed to you. Because those who only recruit staff are not ready yet. In the healthcare sector, 43 percent of new employees have already left within two years. They often see more challenges or career opportunities elsewhere.

For home care organization Vierstroom, active in and around the Groene Hart, the retention of employees is one of the most important priorities, says director Susan Veenhoff. “I put a lot of time into that.”

New home care employees get a ‘buddy’ at Vierstroom who helps them on their way. And extra attention from managers. This also allows the organization to respond quickly if the needs of an employee change. For example, if someone wants to work more or fewer hours.

Barriers to employers

Since last year, the carers and nurses have been given an electric bicycle from the company, which they can also use privately. An employment condition that is valued. It’s healthy, says Veenhoff. “And it’s nice to be able to get a breath of fresh air on the bike after a difficult client.” But it is also efficient. The employees now have less travel time, which means that more people can be helped.

This also helps in a tight labor market. If the working population shrinks, you will have to think about how you can do more work with the same people, says Anne Megens of the AWVN, an association that advises employers on collective bargaining with trade unions. “The Netherlands is part-time champion of the world. In health care and education, many people work part-time. If everyone there would work two more hours, the shortage would already be solved.”

Quite a lot of people want that, says Megens. But too often there are obstacles to actually doing this, for example because it is difficult to combine work with care for children or parents in need. Then it can help, says Megens, to give employees more freedom in organizing their working day.

There can also be obstacles for employers. For example, home care organization Vierstroom has two peak times: in the morning and at the end of the afternoon. “People want to take a shower in the morning,” says Veenhoff, “so they don’t sit in their pajamas all day.” At the beginning of the afternoon there is little to do, then many employees are free.

So when Veenhoff wanted to encourage her staff to work more hours, she first had to think about how they could fill a full eight-hour working day, with enough tasks for the start of the afternoon. It turned out not to be too difficult: “Wound care, checking a stoma, intake interviews, providing information. That can all be done in the afternoon.”

Some employers have a completely different problem: too few people with the right knowledge and skills to come and work for you. They try to increase the group of potential employees through education. This applies to many ICT and energy companies, but also to rail manager ProRail. Every year there was room for 38 people on our own train traffic controller training, but that number has now been expanded to 110 places.

In many sectors, companies work together. Such as in the energy sector, which needs many people to be able to produce enough clean energy within ten years and thus achieve the climate goals. It is estimated that 15,000 people are needed for offshore wind farms alone. Every year about 5,000 MBO and HBO graduates who would be suitable for a job in the wind energy sector, but not all of them choose that career path.

That is why Coolen of Bureau EHT tries to enthuse students as early as possible for a career in the wind energy sector. He also has contact with training courses for this. “Do not let students do an internship only in the fourth year, but already in the first or second.” Coolen would prefer to start even earlier. “Even in primary school you have to tell how cool it is. Let children make windmills.”

‘Easy’ solutions

However, employers should not be blinded by the right training, warns Megens of the AWVN. She sees that employers still too often expect an immediately deployable employee. “Crampedness requires creativity. Employers could recruit much more on the basis of talents and skills, rather than work experience or diploma.”

ProRail is already trying to do that, says Liesbeth Heeling, who is responsible for the rail manager’s training programme. “As a train traffic controller, it is especially important that you are safety-fit, with an analytical mind. You will learn the practice with us. There are now people in the training with a background as make-up artist, baker, or in construction. It is very broad.” The rail manager now also recruits from companies that had to lay off many people due to the corona crisis, such as Transavia and Holland Casino.

Yet there are still too many complacent employers, says sociologist Dekker, who overlook some of the potential employees. People with a work disability still have great difficulty finding work, as do people who have been on welfare for a long time and people over 50. Even in sectors with shortages.

Dekker points out that age discrimination is persistent. Even if people over 50 are willing to give up their salary, research shows, their job prospects do not improve. “That means that something is going terribly wrong on the employer side. Those are prejudices, stereotypes.”

More than a million Dutch people are unemployed or want to work more hours, according to data from Statistics Netherlands. They are called the ‘untapped potential’. “Often people with a blemish,” says Dekker. “Many employers see this as a hassle. Time consuming.” They prefer ‘easy’ solutions, says Dekker, such as automation or the use of labor migrants.

According to Megens of the employers’ association AWVN, this is also part of the solution. “We will never be able to do without labor migration completely,” she says. But some of those million people could work just fine in the sectors with shortages. “You’re not telling me that’s impossible.”