Where have all the workers gone? Dutch employers grapple with post-lockdown staffing shortages

The corona crisis has had several effects, from the mental health impacts of social isolation to income lost in the travel and hospitality sectors. Now that the economy is partly up and running again, many employers are struggling to meet their labour needs. It is becoming almost impossible for employers in many economic sectors to fill their rosters – astunning development given last year’s warnings about an impending mass unemployment crisis.

During last year’s lockdowns, experts repeatedly warned of an almost unavoidable unemployment crisis destined to flow from shutting down the economy to limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Yet, now that the dust has largely settled, a very different reality has become apparent. Companies are currently struggling to find enough workers to stay afloat.

Randstad, one of the largest temporary employment agencies in the Netherlands and abroad, cannot keep up with the unmet need for temporary workers. According to the agency’s latest numbers, a shortage of close to 100,000 temporary workers looms. In July 2021, there were approximately 207,000 open positions, an increase of more than 63 per cent from the year before. Dominique Hermans, CEO of Randstad Netherlands, suggests that staffing difficulties have had negative consequences for economic growth: “Because of the persistent scarcity in certain sectors, a number of companies are struggling to meet their potential.”

Almost no economic sector has been spared from the consequences of the worker shortage. Public transportation has been impacted: ProRail has been forced to reduce the number of in-service trains, as the company cannot find enough workers with adequate training to run a complete schedule. Alliander, an energy company servicing several communities in North Holland, has an installation backup for similar reasons. Demand for truck drivers and experts in logistics has more than doubled.

The worker shortage is actually causing more stress than the pandemic-related lockdown for many companies. “I spoke to an entrepreneur with two restaurants in Utrecht. Throughout the pandemic, he’s never been more stressed than he is now. He had to close three days in one week due to a staffing shortage. We put one labour market crisis behind us and have moved on to the next,” suggested Freek Kalkhoven of the UVW, the organisation that arranges benefits for people who can’t work.

Companies have been having trouble finding workers since well before last year’s shutdown. There were already signs of a tight employment market as far back as 2019, when Statistics Netherlands (CBS) recorded the lowest unemployment numbers in 20 years. During the first part of the pandemic, a record number of workers applied for unemploymentbenefits, but that number has since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Approximately 3.3% of the population is currently unemployed – one of the lowest unemployment levels in Europe.

The lockdown and subsequent recovery have impacted various businesses differently. The shortages have had the greatest impact on technology, sales, logistics, IT and construction. Many sectors that were struggling to find employees before the lockdown are finding it even more difficult now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, partly due to a mismatch of skills between available workers and the businesses that need employees the most. “Many people have left the sectors that were affected by the lockdown. But someone from the hospitality industry cannot just go and work in IT.So in the sectors where there was already a shortage – which were not affected by the pandemic – things have remained the same. And the affected sectors that are now allowed to open again, are empty-handed, as many of their employees have moved on to new jobs,” suggests Arjan Heyma of SEO Economic Research.

The shortage appears to be related to an increase in temporary workers in pandemic-related jobs, large numbers of individuals leaving the employment market and fewer students entering the labour force. Covid-19-related employment, such as testing and vaccinations, attracted thousands of new and temporary workers last year, and many workers from outside the Netherlands returned home during the lockdown. In addition, many students have chosen to remain in school rather than begin working in the uncertainty of the post-pandemic labour market. “There simply aren’t enough new graduates to meet the need in certain sectors,” according to Hermans. For the foreseeable future, the problems seem as yet unsolved.

Written by Lorre Luther