The Netherlands has an urgent need for cops, nurses and teachers

Edition 27 December 2019, by Johannes Visser

The Netherlands is facing a serious shortage of cops, nurses and teachers and things are only getting worse. Due to an ageing population, more people reach retirement age, which puts a heavy burden on younger workers in care, education and police. Schools, hospitals and police stations are closing down, even if temporarily, and teachers and nurses are going on strike. There are even calls for the military to take over specific police duties.

At the beginning of November, the Amsterdam police announced that it would scrap its organized crimes division due to lack of staff. After months of reports about assassinations by the drugs mafia in the Dutch capital, especially the danger to the rule of law after the murder of lawyer Derk Wiersum, this was a heavy blow to Dutch policing. Police unions last month presented a study about the workload of police officers. The unions call on politicians to make a clear choice about which tasks the police should take on and which not.

According to the police unions’ research, as many as 16.000 criminal cases were not dealt with in 2018 due to personnel shortages. Several police units have had to deal with understaffing for years, and as a result it takes too long before people can report a crime or have their police report processed. The huge workload also increases absenteeism, as police workers work too many and too long shifts, which leads to burnouts and pressure on their family life. Cops also become vulnerable when they can’t call for backup in threatening situations on the street.

The past few months have shown how vulnerable the police are. After the murder of Wiersum, it became necessary to provide numerous public prosecutors, judges and lawyers with a security detail. But because the national security service does not have enough staff, hundreds of police officers from around the country have had to put their regular work aside. They now assist in these security tasks, leading to their regular police work sitting idle and getting even farther behind.

And in addition to the current shortage of personnel, at least 14.000 to 17.000 police officers will retire in the next couple of years. Although the police academies, it will take years before these new officers can be added to the police force. In the meantime, unorthodox proposals are being made. During a special gathering of the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG), the mayors of Veenendaal, Utrechtse Heuvelrug and De Bilt have formally requested that the military take over specific security tasks. Furthermore, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, suggested that cops should be allowed to work past their retirement age if they wish, which is now not legally possible.

Caretakers under pressure

Hospitals and care providers too are feeling the brunt of the staff shortages. The healthcare sector is currently struggling with a whopping 39,000 unfilled vacancies across the board. The total number of vacancies has never been this high, nor has the rise of vacancies of 6.000 (37%) in the past year. A study among 78 hospitals carried out by Intrakoop shows that hospitals alone have 8.000 vacancies, mostly for specialist nurses, such as surgical nurses.

On 20 November, all regular hospitals in the Netherlands closed their doors for one day as their personnel went on strike in order to demand higher wages and a lighter workload. In the medical sector the work is heavy, the workload high, and there are too few people to do all the work. The demand for care continues to grow due to an ageing population, which means there are more people with chronic diseases, requiring more complex care. After years of overspending, hospitals have been told to get a better grip on healthcare costs, while at the same time keeping quality up to standard.

In 2018, an outline agreement was reached between hospitals, patient organizations, health insurers, specialists, nurses and carers and the government for a strict financial framework for specialist medical care. Due to work pressures, fewer people choose a care profession, or they leave the care sector altogether. Some return as freelancers or through temporary employment agencies, at a considerably higher rate than before. These ‘care entrepreneurs’ often work only on days and hours that they prefer, as a result of which the incumbent staff have to work the irregular and more difficult hours.

As with the police, the shortage of personnel is only getting worse. With the growth in demand for care in the future, it is estimated that by 2022 there will be a shortage of 100.000 to 125.000 healthcare professionals in the Netherlands.

Educators on the barricades

Then there are the teachers. They too went on strike in November, asking for more money and a lighter workload. One small success that they received after the national strike was the promise of an incidental government contribution of 460 million euro in 2020 and 2021. But that is not enough. Education unions demand a structural rise in the budget in order to deal with, once again, work pressure due to personnel shortages.

It doesn’t seem likely that the national government will allocate these structural funds to education, as the coalition parties recommended that schools should reform from within to save money. Additionally, a few quite unorthodox measures are being proposed. As the largest teacher shortages are found in de Randstad, one idea is to move schools out of busy city centers, which are too expensive for most teachers to live in, and towards the edges of town. Still, parents would probably not be too happy about this development, as they would have to travel farther to take their children to school.

Another option is to have schools merge, which means classrooms would have more students per teacher. Although this is possible and is already happening temporarily when teachers are sick, this measure would likely add to existing work pressures instead of lightening them. Dutch children are not known for being very quiet or disciplined, in contrast to other cultures. Having large classes could lead to situations escalating faster in the classroom, a poorer quality of education and ultimately more teacher drop-out.

Having shorter school weeks, investing in technology and providing more software and video-based education tools to unburden teachers could be quick fixes, but do not ultimately solve the problem of a large and growing shortage of teachers.

So what’s the solution?

This raises the question: what can be done to solve the shortage of cops, nurses and teachers, for now and in the long term? As in most professions, it will take years to train new people. For now, there are simply not many more qualified people around. Experts point to a stimulus policy as a solution to bring back unemployed teachers, convince part-time workers to work more hours and pay existing workers more. Currently there are still around jobless 900.000 people in the Netherlands, who might be enticed or pressured to rejoin the workforce. And echoing Aboutaleb’s proposal, teachers too could be offered the possibility to work past the retirement age of 67.

The current pressures on the system are bound to get worse. The mix of an ageing population and a booming economy creates a huge demand for labour that cannot be filled with current demographic trends. As the baby boomers are going into retirement, fewer people will have to do the same amount of work, if not more. All statistics point to 2040 as the year when this trend should reverse, which is when one in four Dutch people are expected to work as medical or old age caretakers. Today that number is one in seven.

Giving more money to hospitals and schools and paying civil servants higher salaries will most likely not solve the problem of staff shortages, but will rather increase ‘wage competition’ amongst these institutions, as well as other professions. Once again, money does not solve all problems. It is only if the country allows more immigration of people with the right qualifications, or if further mechanization, digitalization, machine learning and artificial intelligence take over work carried out by people now, the problem may be mitigated. Or perhaps it takes only one other economic downswing for the job market to completely change again, leading to a job shortage instead of a worker shortage.