Opinion Jeroen Franssen: “Anyone who wants to work can work” | Agoria

Opinion Jeroen Franssen: “Anyone who wants to work can work”

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Jeroen Franssen
Published on 10/09/21 by Nele Laus
Disappointment dominates after following the two-day conference on employment convened by Federal Minister of Labour Pierre-Yves Dermagne. A quote from one of the speakers on Wednesday made it abundantly clear: “Nothing has been done, everything remains to be done!”

This disappointment is mainly due to an imbalance, a predominance of public and institutional stakeholders and a clear under-representation of the entrepreneurial landscape in the presentations and discussions. In addition, the differences between the regions came up again and again in the discussions. There are of course figures to illustrate these differences, but the fundamental challenges are essentially the same for all three regions. There is a quantitative shortage of available workers and the gap between supply and demand continues to grow. In each of the regions, therefore, there is a strong case for activating workers.

Within the regions, we also see a qualitative mismatch between supply and demand. The skills and profiles in demand are changing faster than ever, and education and trainers are not keeping pace. A second key challenge for each of the regions is to devote more attention to defining a good skills policy. These two fundamental challenges are the same throughout the country.

In this context, the two-day conference turned into a repetition of statements (some false, some very stereotypical), without setting out a concrete and courageous 'approach' for the time being. During the conference, the Minister himself indicated that he wanted to draw on factual analysis and announced a concrete plan for the autumn of this year.  

I would like to share with you a few observations, two per category:

Infuriating statements

I have picked out two statements that clearly illustrate the perspective that prevailed at the conference. On Tuesday: "We must not allow ourselves to be told that pensions will soon be difficult to pay. Above all, we must pay them properly.” And Wednesday: "We know that companies are the cause of many problems. But we should not constantly emphasise this. They are also part of the solution.”

Hardly disputable proposals

There was a notable consensus on a number of issues. For all strata of the population, for workers of all ages, much more attention must be paid to psychosocial well-being if we do not want our efforts to be in vain in the context of increasing employment rates. On an organisational level, we need to do much more to facilitate the reintegration processes of the long-term sick, so that they can easily keep in touch with their employer and the projects on which they have an impact.

Work-to-work transitions need to be stimulated. Labour mobility is essential to meet the rapidly changing demand for profiles in our economy. Today, we are still too tied to a single function and a single employer. This framework will change radically. Employers have to weigh up expensive redundancy payments against retraining programmes. In case of dismissal, part of the compensation must be converted into training.  

Courageous proposals

During the debate with the various ministers responsible, Flemish Minister Crevits rallied all her colleagues by pleading for an exemption for jobseekers in all regions if they follow a training course. After all, jobseekers are obliged to be available for the labour market and following a training course does not exempt them from their obligation. Employment agencies can therefore summon a jobseeker and the latter may have to interrupt or stop a training course that they have started. 

One of the working groups also argued for making job crafting a central concept of work organisation. This means that we should not consider the long 'job wish list' as a starting point for collaboration. It is better to start with an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses and availability of a candidate or worker who wants to advance in their career, and then examine their employability. This is a vision that I have been promoting strongly for several years, a vision that in practice is increasingly followed (whether by obligation or not), but which still requires a great deal of awareness on the part of companies and individuals.  

Missed opportunities

Despite the consensus on a number of aspects and some visions that are certainly going in the right direction, it is still the impression of a lack of courage that emerges from this conference, namely the courage needed to push through certain essential measures. Two examples: 

All those involved clearly tried to stay well away from any form of obligation. The case was made for extending the right to training, and Minister Dermagne announced that he also wanted to make the right to training an individual right, and no longer a right that is averaged over a group of workers.  That's fine by me, but we need to go one step further if we want to be effective. 

An extended right to training only makes sense if we dare to make it an individual obligation. All profiles are subject to change. Everyone has to take part in training. Training is not only virtuous, it is also crucial for staying in the game. The Mattheus effect was often mentioned during the discussions. The profiles that need training the most are also those that have the least access to it. Well, let's move towards compulsory individual training so that everyone comes out of it better.  
The conference on employment could also have changed the situation by giving voice to a different discourse. However, in the presentations, the focus was mainly on the dangers, the threats, the physical and mental burdens. Our current labour market is a field of opportunity. It is unfortunate that things were not presented in this light. Our economic development will ensure that, in the years to come, all those who are willing and able to work can actually do so. Moreover, more than ever before, we can rely on both people and technology and we must be able to make work more comfortable. These are ambitions that make sense, these are opportunities that can guarantee an optimal combination of prosperity and individual well-being. 

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