The rapid growth in sustainability in the Netherlands is in danger of stalling because of the shrinking number of young people opting for technical qualifications, while the number of vacancies is fast rising
- The number of students opting for technical courses that are essential for the energy transition is falling
- The number of vacancies is increasing rapidly, which threatens to halt fast-growing sustainability
- The shortage of technical personnel is a major challenge for companies
A rapid increase in sustainability in the Netherlands is in danger of stalling because fewer and fewer young people are opting for technical courses, while the number of vacancies is rising rapidly.
In the most essential studies, student numbers are even falling drastically. This is apparent from an FD analysis of the intake figures at HBO [higher vocational education] and university level.
For example, the intake for higher vocational education in electrical engineering falls by an average of 17% and for mechanical engineering it is 9%. An even larger decrease is registered in all technical HBO programmes combined (-1.4%). This trend is also visible in university courses. At the University of Twente, for example, there are 59% fewer students starting in computer Science, and 23% fewer in civil engineering.
This is happening while the demand from companies for data analysts, mechanical engineers and engineers is only increasing. The business community invariably cites a shortage of personnel as one of the biggest obstacles to sustainability. Numerous initiatives to enthuse more young people to technology have had insufficient effect. “The labour shortages threaten to become the showstopper of the energy transition,” says Doekle Terpstra, of sector organisation Techniek Nederland.
In the handful of technical professions that are most needed in the sector (see methodology) there are currently 23,000 vacancies, according to an analysis by market researcher Intelligence Group. For the technology sector as a whole, that number goes up to 100,000.
A company like grid operator Enexis, which has to quickly expand and upgrade the electricity grid, has 300 unfilled vacancies, mostly in installation technology, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. “The scarcity of personnel is one of the main challenges.” says Han Slootweg, who is responsible for Enexis’ infrastructure.
Higher education level required
In addition to technical vocational students, who can install solar panels or lay cables, for example, professionals who come through colleges or universities are increasingly crucial.
“More and more work is controlled remotely or uses smart systems and data analysis. That also demands a lot from the educational level of professionals,” says Terpstra. “Moreover, HBO and WO [university] graduates are indispensable for the innovations needed to accelerate the energy transition even more.”
Although the programmes themselves do a lot to get students interested, it is not working. “The word worrisome doesn’t even cover it anymore,” says Arie van Scheepen, programme manager of the mechanical engineering programme at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. “Compared to other study programmes, we are still doing well, but we also expect dozens of students less than before.” In view of the urgent demand, they would want to have exactly double the number of students.
The number of technology students at universities is increasing very slightly. But this is mainly due to the fact that the total number of enrolments at universities in general is growing, as relatively fewer students are opting for technology. Their share fell from 11.8% in 2021 to 10.7% next year.
‘A bunch of students’
Only a dozen students start some crucial qualifications, such as the two-year higher professional education course in mechanical engineering. The full-time variant in Utrecht only attracts a few dozen. These figures are dwarfed by the immense demand in the labour market.
Paradoxically enough, the limited intake is sometimes also due to shortages, because these limit the capacity for training. For example, computer science has a numerus fixus, partly because of too few lecturers. “That hurts us,” says a spokesperson for the University of Twente, “because there is a major social task for educating people in technology.”
The fear is that the intake in technology courses will not increase substantially after next year, because fewer and fewer secondary school students are opting for the right subject package. “If this trend continues, we will have a problem,” says Beatrice Boots of the knowledge institute Platform Talent for Technology.
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) recognises the picture of the declining influx. More money is going to go to higher professional education courses where there are shortages and the cabinet will come up with new plans before the summer. In addition, (subsidised) apprenticeship programmes, in which a student can start working in a company from day one, are now sprouting like mushrooms.
A spokesperson for OCW emphasises that training more people is only one of the solutions to the labour shortage in the technology sector. Retraining, innovation and good working conditions are also important.
FD asked Techniek Nederland, Techniekpact and the Dutch Association for Sustainable Energy (NVDE) to pick all qualifications at HBO [higher vocational education] or university level that they see as essential for the success of the energy transition.
The newspaper requested the registration figures of previous years, plus the registration figures for the coming year, for those courses. The Association of Universities of Applied Sciences gave these figures per study programme, Universities of the Netherlands only for the cluster of technical study programmes. They also noted that the registration figures for the coming year can still change.
According to the parties mentioned, five qualifications are particularly important: electrical engineering, energy engineering, mechanical engineering, sustainable energy and computer science/data science.
On request, market researcher Intelligence Group analysed the current vacancies for related positions, counting 23,000 job openings in those fields. The very latest intake figures at MBO [secondary vocational education] level were not yet available according to the MBO Council, but the FD previously reported that the number of technicians is also falling there.
This article originally appeared in FD, the Dutch business daily, on 26 June 2022