Gegeven de complexe Limburgse arbeidsmarkt is het nuttig om eens vooruit te kijken, en wel door op een systematische manier toekomstplaatjes te maken, gebaseerd op kerngegevens. Alle grote ondernemingen doen dat, en ook voor het regionale management kan het een handvat zijn voor strategische besluitvorming. Dit Radar-onderwerp is in het Engels, maar dat mag in een Europese regio geen probleem zijn.
Although it has been over seventy years since the Dutch government announced that all coal mines were to cease activity, for Southern Limburg, this declaration led to ramifications that are still being addressed today. With such a large quantity of employment residing in the mining industry, in order to combat social and economic stagnation the region has been forced to try and improve its ‘employability’, that is, to create an environment that not only promotes and encourages innovative business start-ups, but is also able to attract and retain professional workers on a long term basis. Following interviews with two experts in the field, Dr. Hans Kasper, Scientific Director at Etil Research Group, and Dr. Jol Stoffers MBA, Professor of Employability at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, this article will explore the issue of employability in Southern Limburg by presenting two descriptive future scenarios: The first, ‘We Are What We Are’, looks at the current climate and identifies the factors that most need confronting, while the second scenario, ‘Leapfrogging Into The Future’, outlines possible initiatives that could be implemented, assuming a more preemptive role on behalf of all stakeholders. It should be noted that these are two hypothetical scenarios constructed by the author, not the opinions of the interviewees themselves.
We Are What We Are
It is a simple fact of life that it is hard to change the DNA of a region. For Limburg this disconcertingly manifests itself as narrow mindedness, an historically grown characteristic, a defensive attitude that opposes change and places fixed limits on innovation and progress. The region lacks the venture capital needed for substantial and drastic change, nevertheless, conservative nature sees that economic incentives of for instance the province are based on savings rather than bold investments.
With regard to the economy Limburg is like most regions situated close the border in that they all suffer job losses to the more dynamic regions, whether that be Randstad or abroad. On top of this we also have to deal with an ageing and shrinking population, as well as a negative national transfer ratio, meaning that more Limburgers leave the region annually than expats or foreigners move in (although this is positive at the international level). Aside from posing threats in themselves, these demographic deficiencies render it even more important to ensure that jobs are secured for those who stay. Given this situation it is risky to focus solely on knowledge workers, those at Brightlands for example, as unemployment is a problem at all stages in the work chain. Education levels are lower in Limburg than compared to the rest of the country, and so keeping and vitalising traditional industries presents itself as the best strategy.
The second factor in need of addressing, under the heading of infrastructure, is public transportation in the region, which is far from optimal, especially in regard to links within the Euregion, where former borders still play an obstructive role. The best thing in terms of improvement would be to install a network of direct buses, following the Maastricht-Aachen direct line model, which connects the key cities and regional airports.
The final component of the ‘We Are What We Are’ scenario looks at quality of life and the role of cultural tendencies. Limburg is a region in which cultural cocooning is predominant, at all levels. Look at the poor integration level of Dutch citizens in the local communities, and the absence of lively connections between the Dutch and foreign inhabitants. Maastricht University should become more ambitious in this respect. Whereby the focus should be on not only attracting expat staff and students, but also on increasing efforts to connect with and embed itself in the Limburg environment.
Leapfrogging into the Future
The second scenario ‘Leapfrogging into the Future’ assumes that given the complicated starting point, Limburg being an underprivileged region, it is by far the best choice to zoom in on radical change rather than resort to incremental growth. Limburg must take a decisive leap towards becoming a knowledge society, meaning a transformation that shakes off the label of ‘Escalator to the Randstad’ and results instead in Southern Limburg being perceived of as a ‘Regional Magnet’ in its own right. In addition to its primary focus of establishing top research institutes, the province can only achieve this feat with a second, in-depth investment programme that aims at improving the regional quality of life as an incentive for professional workers to stay in or come to the region.
The economic considerations in this scenario are numerous. An important measure is to cleverly exploit the multiplier factor, which stipulates that every individual knowledge worker indirectly creates 7 to 10 jobs, from the lab technicians to the administrative staff to the cleaners. As a result, MBO-level and labour market entrants will receive better training and development options. A second course of action is to eliminate the failing attempts at retaining young professionals in the region, and instead allow them to mature in other regions or countries and incentivise them to return once harnessed with expertise and an open mind. Furthermore, regional image building will take a different approach and advertise, not so much via self-promotion, but through the launching of showcase projects, for example the ambition to win a future tender for the building of a next generation telescope (the Einstein-project).
Moving on to infrastructure, Limburg’s unique geographical location, being centred within the heart of Europe, is Limburg’s unique selling point and needs exploiting. There will only be a future for the Euregion if it develops into a true metropolitan area, and for this, smooth and fast transportation is a key factor. The choice is between the default solution: a light rail loop connecting cities, universities, airports and train nodes, or betting on the imminent arrival of autonomous driving vehicles. The light rail would run at regular intervals, as is the case with trains between Utrecht and Amsterdam, rather than according to a schedule in the typical sense. In the latter, risk responsive case, a point of contention would be the need for serious investment in ‘smart roads’, an endeavour that despite being cost, labour and time extensive, boasts foresight and significant potential returns.
Finally, with regard to improving the lifestyle within the region, it is important to note that easy living is all about good patterns of communication. A first move is removing the dialect border for lower classified jobs. Currently there are many badly needed asylum seekers and refugees that have no option but to leave Limburg because, in the organisations and companies where they qualify for, Dutch is not the preferred language. Another interesting initiative is the launch of ‘swapping weeks’ for local and foreign youngsters, which allows them the opportunity to experience different perspectives and to create lasting contacts.
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