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Lifelong learning as the answer to huge labour shortage

Cancelled trains, massive queues at Schiphol Airport, nursery closures and long waiting times for health care. These are all the results of labour shortages. Economist Lars van Doorn can see some possible solutions but has some less optimistic news too.

First the bad news: the labour shortages are far from over. The effect of the support measures during the coronavirus crisis and the skyrocketing demand for staff after the crisis will subside. But the population will continue to age in the coming years, decades even. Although the shortages won’t be as extreme as now, the labour market is likely to remain tight.

‘Rather than look at someone’s qualifications, businesses should look at their potential instead.’

Provide more opportunities

With the labour shortages set to continue, we need to be smarter about how we use people who are able to work, says Van Doorn. ‘Employers should provide more opportunities for people who now find it difficult or fail to find a job. In the Netherlands, this is a group of 1.1 million people: the elderly, people with a disability and refugees, for example. Rather than look at someone’s qualifications, businesses should look at their potential instead. Then they can train these employees on the job.’


For his PhD research, Van Doorn is looking at how flexibilisation, migration, globalisation and technological change affect the labour market. Do these areas offer any solutions to labour shortages?  

Migration can help, but this is a sensitive subject and it does have its problems, he says. There are also labour shortages in the countries around us. And prosperity has risen sharply in Eastern Europe in recent years, so fewer Eastern Europeans are willing to work in the Netherlands. ‘We also see a lot of abuse surrounding labour migration, such as unsafe housing or exploitation. We need good housing but the housing market is already crowded, so we need to look carefully at which jobs we want to attract people for.’

The current trend is for fewer jobs and business divisions to move abroad.


One aspect of globalisation is jobs disappearing abroad, but the current trend is for fewer jobs and business divisions to move abroad. ‘Although this isn’t just due to coronavirus, coronavirus has shown us that there can be a bottleneck in supply routes,’ Van Doorn explains. ‘That and the geopolitical situation have fuelled the discussion about which business divisions we allow to go abroad.’

The EU has consequently decided, for instance, to invest heavily in its own chip industry. ‘That does mean there will be more demand for technical staff when there is a shortage of them as it is. This shift in globalisation does appear to further fuel the demand for labour.’

Technological development

Robots and automation could offer a solution. They can take on certain tasks from people, increasing their productivity or enabling them to do work a machine can’t do. 

Research has shown that if the labour market is tight, businesses invest more in technology. Van Doorn: ‘At the end of the day, technology means you need fewer people, but you still need people with specific knowledge who can install and maintain the technology. And this brings me to that hobby horse of economists: education. Lifelong learning really does have to be taken seriously. And education needs to show the career prospects of certain jobs, which will make it more appealing to switch to other jobs. It would be good if we realised how important good professionals are.’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: ANP

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