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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Is there really a shortage in available, correctly qualified personnel for ICT companies? Or is the industry suffering from the consequences of outsourcing, as well as maintaining unrealistic demands with respect to their new employees?!

For me as a (formerly) freelancing worker in the ICT industry, there was a quite interesting news message in Het Financieele Dagblad this week.

From research carried out by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics it was disclosed that there allegedly is a shortage of roughly 17% in qualified ICT personnel among large employers and principals with an interest in ICT. 

These are companies and institutions like ICT employers, central and local governments and governmental organizations, large banks and insurance companies and other large commercial parties, with an vital ICT component in their line of business.

The following snippets were printed in Het Financieele Dagblad:

Entrepreneurs are more and more hampered by the mounting shortage in qualified personnel. In the ICT industry this shortage amounts to 17%, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics.

Roughly 7% of the entrepreneurs states that the shortage in qualified personnel offers difficulties in the daily conduct of business. This number was not that high since 2009. In the commercial business industry 11% of the employers sees this shortage as an obstacle for further growth, while in the Transport and Storage industry 7% of the companies experience such a shortage.

When this research is true and objective indeed, it would mean that it is not possible to fill in roughly one in five ICT jobs, due to a lack of qualified personnel. That is an alarming number indeed, but is it true?! 

If have my doubts personally, based upon my own experiences of these last months and (even) years, since the crisis started in 2008.

As many of my readers know, my official profession is that of a senior software testing professional with 18 years of experience in this industry. Especially the last two years I have been in the situation too often, that I was looking for a new assignment as software tester at the government, the financial industry or other commercial parties.

When I compare the current situation with the situation in 1999 when there REALLY was a shortage in the ICT industry, under influence of the dot-com bubble, these situations are almost diametrically opposite.

In 1999 I received three salary increases in one year myself. Everybody and their sister, who were able to write two flawless lines of computer code in a row, were hired for a future in the ICT industry. Lab assistents, biologists, mathematicians, physicians, teachers and many other professions were lured into a job as programmer, software tester or project manager, with skyhigh salaries, fancy leasecars and other perks, as demand required that. That was a shortage!

Looking at things now, it is a whole different ball-game.

Countless ICT jobs have been outsourced to Eastern Europe, India and other low-wage countries, where whole ‘software factories’ have emerged that mass-produce billions of lines of code for especially large customers of ICT services in Europe and the United States. At the same time the Dutch market has been ‘flooded’ with numerous knowledge workers from these same countries, who chose for a more prosperous future in The Netherlands.

Salaries and fees in the ICT industry, especially for the more common programming, analysis and testing jobs and commonly used tools, are still under fierce downward pressure in a market in which ‘demand’ still rules, like it has already done during the last decade.

I have written dozens of motivations for testing jobs during these last two years and I’ve noticed that large employers and principals are still extremely picky with regard to their (temporary) personnel.

Companies demand very experienced workers with a long list of tool-driven and general (personal) skills and a genuine 'passion for their job', but refuse to pay ‘top dollar’ for them, unless they possess skills that are really extremely rare in the business.

Instead of settling for a (temporary) worker that can meet roughly 80% - 90% of the demands in the advert, knowing that he/she will be able to fill in the knowledge void very quickly in most cases, many large employers and principals still only want to settle for the ‘perfect 10’, when it comes to their temporary personnel and fixed employees.

Their adverts show at least 10 to 15 bullets of specifically demanded experience (“3 to 5 years experience in line of business abc and with programming tool xyz”), personal skills and expert knowledge of very specific tools, often put down as 'knock out criteria'.

If you as an ICT professional cannot meet all these demands or at least the vast majority of those (i.e. the ‘knock out’ criteria), there is a considerable chance that you will not be invited for a job conversation at all and your resumee will untimely end up in the dustbin. And that in spite of the fact that you are probably more than capable to execute the job at hand. 

No experience within the government? Then were sorry! No experience with the Protractor testing tool?! No, than we cannot use your knowledge and experience!” And indeed: these ‘perfect 10’ guys and girls are still very hard to find, just like they will be in any situation.

A large bank in The Netherlands requires their ICT professionals to bring their own working devices, like a notebook/laptop, storage devices, iPad and telephone (i.e. BYOD aka Bring Your Own Device) and work the first two weeks for free (i.e. without payment) as well. The latter is sold to their 'would be' consultants as 'an introduction period in which personnel is not productive yet’. Refuse this and your application probably does not stand a chance in the process!

Other large companies simply refuse to accept your resumee for a new job or assignment, when you have failed earlier during a  job application procedure for a different job. 

Does that sound like an alarming 17% shortage in ICT workers?! To me, it doesn’t.

And look at things from a different point of view. All the large banks and probably many insurance companies too have dismissed hundreds of their ICT workers, who were not considered ‘fit for the agile way of working’ anymore. Those were people who have worked to the full satisfaction of their employers for years in a row, but suddenly were not good enough anymore.

And for instance ‘Big Blue’ IBM has fired hundreds of workers during a recent reorganization, a.o. for reasons of losing a large contract at KPN, the Dutch telecom company. The following snippets come from Computable.

After counseling with the central works council, IBM has decided to scratch 334 jobs within the company. This reorganization had been announced already in March 2016 and now the definitive number of workers has been disclosed.

IBM carries out a large European job cutting operation, in which much work is transfered to India. There is a considerable chance that – after the 334 jobs that have been erased in the meantime – more people will lose their job. IBM would like to have carried out this operation before the end of this year.

To these ears all this does not sound like a real shortage in the number of ICT workers, like signaled by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, in spite of the increasing number of assignments. 

These IBM workers alone and also the bank’s and insurance companies’ ICT employees are in most cases perfectly capable people of which still many are currently looking for a new job or assignment. Companies and the government just have to give them a chance!

It just sounds like the 17% of ICT jobs that could not be filled in, according to the CBS, are either extremely specialized jobs – which will always be hard to fill in, as such people are always scarce and in demand – or jobs that have been administered by extremely picky companies, looking for their ‘perfect 10’ consultants and employees in vain.

To be honest, I don’t expect the situation of 1999 to return soon to The Netherlands. This in the light of the massive influx of foreign knowledge workers of the last fifteen years or the equally massive outsourcing of Dutch ICT jobs and work backlogs to India and Eastern Europe. 

The Dot Com bubble was really a crazy, ‘once in a lifetime’ situation, but the current situation is definitely not!

I just expect that the companies currently looking for ICT workers will become somewhat less picky in the coming months and years and become more willing to give ICT workers, who score a 7 or 8 out of 10, a chance, instead of waiting for "mr. or mrs. Perfect". 

Let us be honest: most of those ‘7 or 8’ workers are more than qualified and willing to do a wonderful job at their new employer or principal and therefore I don’t see the current ‘shortage’ as a problem. 

It is just a signal that companies and the government have to step over their initial reservations and settle for workers that seem a ‘teeny weeny’ bit less qualified, but are not in reality. And that is actually a great development, to be honest...

Monday, 19 September 2016

“Majesty, point us a dot at the horizon. Somewhere where we – the Dutch people – would want to go for ourselves and our children”. Open letter to the Dutch King as the government’s official straw man on Prince’s Day

Your Majesty,

Since last Prince’s Day [the Dutch National Budget Day and the moment of the official governmental outlook for the next year on the third Tuesday of September - EL] the situation in The Netherlands has substantially improved, as far as the economy is concerned.

Housing prices are up again – especially in the big cities –and unemployment is dropping; in particular among older, 50+ workers. The number of trucks on the Dutch roads is steadily mounting, as a palpable sign of soaring economic activity. In other words, the economy seems to be in a positive flow, in spite of the global unrest, the refugee crisis and the tensions in Eastern Europe. On top of that the Dutch national budget looks fine as well.

There is a lot to be satisfied about for the current PvdA (socialist) and VVD (liberal-conservative) government, that is going to reach maturity unharmed for the first time in many, many years.  And – as 2017 is an election year for the Second Chamber of Parliament – the government is boasting about its achievements during the nearly four years of Cabinet Mark Rutte II.

The PvdA is boasting about the social, labour-friendly parts in their share of the government policy, while the VVD is bragging about their ministers and state secretaries being tough on crime, commuter-friendly (“We delivered more tarmac during this government period than during any other time before”) and being the entrepreneur’s best friends.

Almost everybody in the government – irrespective of their party – is very pleased with himself and wants to share the secret of his success with the Dutch grassroots, as an invitation to give him/her another chance.

And Mark Rutte? He thinks that he is capable of leading the country for another five years, like no-one else is, and he is very much willing to do so too. Well, your majesty, you know him.

But, your highness, look outside the safe zone of your own protected micro-cosmos. Forget those ecstatic sportsmen and -women that you encountered on various occasions in Rio de Janeiro: those people – especially the medal winners – are living in their own micro-cosmos, where they can ignore – even deny – reality and normal live in The Netherlands.

Read the newspapers and don’t skip the comments of common Dutch citizens beneath the articles. Spend a day or two on Twitter or Facebook and other social media to get acquainted with the emotions of ‘Joop & Liesbeth’ (proverbial socialist couple), ‘Jan-Jaap and Brechtje’ (proverbial liberal-conservatives) or their blue-collar rightwing counterparts ‘Henk & Ingrid’. Not always the happiest of emotions; thats true! And often contrary in their conclusions with respect to the Dutch social-economic situation. But very real ones!

Pierce through the tinsel of LinkedIn showing only ‘passionate and utterly motivated people, waiting for a new challenge where they can proactively show what they are made of’; there are quite a lot of them, aren’t there?! Do you think all those people are on LinkedIn for fun?! Really?!

And do you think that all those people on LinkedIn are showing cheesy statements of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or the Dalai Lama, because they deeply adore those guys? Really?! And not, because these folks hope that some of these idols’ glory, success and glamour will touch themselves on their quest for a new job and a better career?!

Read about the numerous flex-workers, the (not so) freelancers and the hundreds of thousands of youngsters with temporary contracts, who will not receive a fixed contract in many, many years probably. Or the people with a chronical illness and their loved ones, who are all struggling to cope with that circumstance: humanely, but also financially and with respect to their difficult work-leisure balance.

Please walk the extra mile to really know the current feelings of your citizens, instead of only being the ventriloquist’s dummy of your government. Just a perfect spokesman, reading a bad speech that is utterly boring in its insignificance and its stately dryness and cheesiness. Prick through the bragging of this cabinets self-complacency and try to see what the people are missing at this moment: the proverbial dot on the horizon.

Your Majesty, you have three children and so have I. Actually they are almost the same age. Your oldest daughter will become the Queen of The Netherlands, while my youngest son will hopefully become the King of Dutch Chess.

I want my children to grow up in a cleaner, more healthy world. Not in a world in which their lungs will be polluted at a young age with the particulates of the heavy industry and the millions of fossile fuel-driven cars, clouding our highways. And I want them to grow up in a world in which they can get a decent job with a decent salary and a decent retirement fee after they have stopped working; at a reasonable age.

I want them to grow up in a safe world, in which the Second Cold War and Islamic jihads are hopefully a thing of the past again. A world in which mutual understanding has triumphated upon the countries with the biggest guns, the most deadly bombs or the most dangerous religious masses.

A world in which drinking and cleaning water is freely obtainable for all the world’s citizens and daily food stuffs are not the asset of a few powerful companies: Bayer-Monsanto, Nestle, Danone, Syngenta or Cargill. And not in a world in which Africa is still starving from poverty and drought, while being looted by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea or the European countries and the United States; just as South-America and the North Pole.

For my children I want that they have the chance to see their children and grandchildren grow up, just like I see them do that now. I know by heart, that you think about that the same way, with respect to your children.

I know that you are bound by the protocol to express that what is presented to you and that the Prime Minister has written your King’s speech. A Prime Minister who flatters himself with the opinion that he ‘is not the guy for having a grand vision on the world. That he is simply keeping the shop open for “The Netherlands ltd” and that he is doing a fine job with that’. 

Talented in what he does, but utterly uninspiring as a human being.

PM Mark Rutte does not have children of himself and that is OK, of course. I hope for him that he will find and keep happiness in his life: with or without a partner for life. I think I know his situation as I have been in a similar situation too, for quite a long time. Actually not much unlike yourself, your highness.

Nevertheless, you have children, as I mentioned earlier. That gives you an extra responsibility: both as a loving father and instigator of your own ‘blue’ bloodline. And that, even though your daughters live in the same micro-cosmos as you do. 

A micro-cosmos in which encounters with the press and with common, 'normal' people are reduced to half a dozen, carefully chosen and guarded moments per year. And a micro-cosmos in which having a shedload of money, status and a fixed job has never been an issue, even though I dont envy you or your job.

Yet, I hope that you know and understand that a world war with Russia, China or perhaps even the United States would destroy your little Camelot after all, even though you and your loved ones would be among the first people to find shelter. 

And that religious tensions and economic despair in a society can utterly divide people at the bottom of the social ladder and make them afraid, desperate and agressive. And also that the air pollution from fossile fuels won’t stop just outside your little paradises in Wassenaar, Den Haag, Greece or Switzerland, irrespective of how much money you paid and security you arranged for it.

And of course I hope you understand and feel inside your heart that the dissatisfied and disappointed, sometimes even angry and alienated people in The Netherlands want a straw to clutch at: a glimmer of hope from a person that they love and trust beyond anything else. A sign that gives them confidence and courage to move on living their lives and to get more optimistical about the future again, as it is their future; for them to discover!

So please, your highness...!

Go to your ‘employer’ Mark Rutte and his henchmen and tell them to take a hike with Rutte's boring secrets of his Cabinet’s success, their boasting about the positive progression of the Dutch economy and their stately prose about the current state of the Dutch nation, that nobody understands and for which nobody really cares. 

Tell them that you go on strike “like an Air France pilot” if he demands from you to present that boring nonsense again.

Tell them that you heard from your ‘subjects’ (i.e. the Dutch citizens) that they want an inspired and inspiring speech: a speech that will change their life for the better and make the world – at least our country – a better place again, in which solidarity and mutual trust triumphate egoism and carelessness about our fellow citizens.

Tell Mark that you are ready and willing to give that darn speech, like you were never before. Tell Mark that your children – the princesses – want to become 90+ too, just like your grandmother and -father did. And that fossile fueles are soooo 1990.

Tell him that a modern Prime Minister is not a simple technocratic and bureaucratic store manager, like Rutte seems to believe. Tell him that he is an utterly important politician on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of inspiring, motivating and comforting the people in his country: not only to smoothtalk to and pamper his own grassroots.

Go for it, your highness! Show him that you are worth every euro that he pays for you per annum, as the moral leader of our country! You – and no-one else – can do this! I rely on you!!!

Yours sincerely,


PS. Tell Maxima to not go berzerk on the hat. She looks fine without it!

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The emphasis of government policies, officials and pundits on the promotion of electronic, non-cash money has a clear drawback: people can lose grip on their spending pattern and current cash position. So abolishing all cash-money is not the right way to fight corruption, large-scale crime and terrorism

Perhaps everybody knows the feeling. You are in a shop with your purchases, walking to the cashdesk where the point-of-sale terminal is. And then you wonder:"Will I have enough money on my current account to pay my purchases or not?!" 

The feelings of embarrassment when the terminal responds: “You have reached your spending limit for this period. Please try to pay differently”, and you have to tell the cashier that you can’t pay for your purchases, are enough to thoroughly ruin your day... Or even longer when you have to wait a few days before your paycheck / salary transfer comes in.

Another precarious situation is when you spent money that you had reserved for other things – the rent, the electricity bill, the holiday or the mortgage repayment – because you were unaware of how much money you already spent from your bank account that month and you didn’t have online, real time insights in your current account at the time that you needed it most.

A third risk of having a non-cash money system is that one off-invoices and bills are being sent and collected exclusively through digital services (internet banking and email), so without a version on paper. That is very convenient for companies and the (local) government bureaus as it strongly reduces their mail and banking expenses, but not for people who always relied on the mailman for bringing their bills and invoices: elderly folks and computer haters / digital illiterates.

All these situations are the inevitable result of the fact that you nowadays pay electronically mostlyvia internet banking and point of sale terminals – at least in The Netherlands – and not in hard cash or through paper transaction forms anymore. Cash, that you collected at your bank, where you also dropped your money transaction forms, or ATM once a week.

In those earlier times it was easy: you collected enough cash for a few days or a week and when it finally ran out, it was simply gone: you knew exactly how much you spent that week. You did your all your regular payments (i.e. mortgage, rent, electricity, doctor's bills and all else) via transaction forms or cash payments too. Except for an early credit card, it was impossible to spend more money than you carried, except for regular shops where they knew your name and your face and they trusted you to pay your dues in time.

These days many people totally lose track of their spendings, as they don’t check out their bank account every day and don’t carry cash anymore, but use their bankcard for everything. And for some, mostly older people, internet banking is a hurdle that they hardly can take. Only at the moment that they discover that there was too much month in their salary or benefit payment, the alarm bells ring: often in a supermarket or a shop, or when their invoice payments start to bounce.

The latter was the subject of an article in De Telegraaf: the largest daily paper in The Netherlands:

Increasing numbers of Dutch people have a hard time to maintain grip on their spendings, due to the mounting digitization of payment services.

As a consequence these consuments lose track and give up on it. Consequence: they fail in applying for benefit / allowance money for which they are entitled and also run a risk of getting into financial trouble.

From the annual report of Humanitas, a large volunteers organization in The Netherlands, it became clear that last year 13.832 people came in for help with their home administration, a 13% increase year on year. Budget information bureau Nibud also speaks of a growing problem, hitting youngsters as well as elderly people.

According to Humanitas this is a consequence of the growing complexity of financial services in The Netherlands. “Many elders have minimal computer skills. Due to the digitization of financial services and the termination of paper invoices and accompanying information by many institutions and authorities, they lost track of what money comes in and gets out”, according to a spokespreson of the organization.

But also many youngsters are clueless about their finances and the digitization of payment services, according to Nibud: ”Many of them don’t know how to apply for allowances and benefits at the governmental digital portals. Or they have problems with ticking the right boxes, when it comes to the electronic application for for instance their study benefit”, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

The consequences are quite clear, according to Roeland van Geuns, lecturer Poverty and Participation at the vocational college ‘Hogeschool van Amsterdam’. “In many cases such people don’t receive and use public benefits for which they are fully entitled, due to lacking digital skills. They don’t apply for a healthcare benefit, as they didn’t even know they were entitled to. And when they do know, they are still clueless upon how to apply for it anyway.”

This particular article was focusing on the problems of people who don’t know how to wrangle their computer and use internet banking. But as I tried to explain in the first part of the article, this problem of disconnection between people and their financial situation is broader.

This is particularly worrisome and important, as more and more pundits and government officials advocate a strong reduction in the global amount of paper cash (Euros and Dollars), in order to hamper and counterattack the large circuits of black, criminal money that are crossing the world nowadays. Money that is used for the funding of crime and terrorist attacks or for the bribery of government officials around the globe.

One of those pundits, Kenneth Rogoff, advocated a moratorium on the usage of large banknotes: €100, €200 and €500 or their dollar and yen pendants, in an op-ed in Het Financieele Dagblad:

The $100 bill is accounting for 80% of the staggering cash amount of $4,200 per capita in the United States. In Japan, the ¥10,000 (roughly $100) is responsible for roughly 90% of the Japanese cash amount. The cash possession per capita is almost $7000 overthere. All this money is enabling growth of the underground economy; not the official one.

I don’t advocate a cashless society, as this will neither be feasible nor desirable for the time being. Nevertheless, a cashless society would be fairer and more secure. With the increasing usage of bank cards, electronic money transfers and mobile payments, the usage of cash in the legal economy has decreased, especially for middle and large-scale payment transactions. Research learned that only a small percentage of the large banknotes is held and used for payments by common people and SME companies.

Cash makes crimes, corruption and terrorism easier, as it is anonymous, and large bills are especially problematic as they are so easy to carry and hide. A million dollar in $100 bills fits in a small attache briefcase and a million in $500 dollar bills even fits in a lady’s purse.

Fair enough: there are other ways to bribe an official or to evade taxes or to carry out other forms of financial crime. But most of them have very high transaction costs (for instance uncut, unpolished diamonds) or carry a more than average risk for disclosure (bank transfers and credit card payments).

Admitted, Rogoff builds a strong case for the cashless society, but as he pointed out himself, it is not feasible and desirable for everybody yet, especially the elderly.

And there is one big drawback to electronic money alone, that cannot be mitigated easily. What happens with your non-cash money when the bank, where it resides, turns out to be not safe. That happened to my wife, who had a bank account at the Russian Sberbank in the Nineties of last century:

However, this is not the only thing that is haunting this former Soviet statebank. In 1997, when the Russian ruble collapsed, countless Russians (among whom my wife) lost the lion share of their life savings, stashed at the Sberbank: sometimes for thousands of dollars per person in savings.

All these people received the crisp message from their local Sberbank: “We’re sorry, your money is gone! It has vanished! Next customer, please!”

It will probably still take a few decades, before Sberbank loses this image of a bank which lost billions in embezzled money, as a consequencey of massive fraud and corruption. As it is like John Goldsmith stated in his wonderful book “Bullion”: “money does not vaporize, it just gets another owner”.

This example shows in a sourish way, that eventually the only party that knows that you own a certain amount of electronic money, is the bank that keeps it for you. When this bank (especially in less safe countries with a much weaker central bank and/or central administration) is gone, so is your money. This is an undeniable risk of electronic money that is not true for cash money, in particular when it is stashed in a safe or deposit box that can be reached at all times.

So please be careful before you declare cash money a thing of the past, by totally moving all money transactions on behalf of the goverment and (SME) companies to cyberspace. For many people cash money is still a tangible tool for taking control of their expenses and keeping their financial health in order. It is also a tangible proof that they really own their money: money that cannot be simply taken away by a plummeting bank or a cash-strapped government in a thorougly corrupted country. 

Corruption – the killer of honesty, the economy and national stability in countries all over the world – must be dealt with fiercely, but that is a (supra-)national government job. Not a thing that one can simply blame on the sheer existence of cash money. That would be too easy for the people in charge.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

It’s time to appreciate the workers again and to look at them as the mortar of every company; even if they come with an administrative hassle and their productivity looks inferior to output robotized and digitized services

It doesn't seem the most pleasant of times for being a worker in a large company.

Litterally at the minute that I started to write this article, a news alert popped up that the large Dutch bank ABN Amro is going to dismiss up to 1375 “superfluous” workers (link in Dutch).

And also at other financial institutions, commercial service providers and insurance companies there is a continuous search for ways to replace ‘expensive, time-restricted and basically unreliable’ workers with digitized and robotized services that can be operated around the clock the whole year through, in this increasingly 24x7 economy.

Instead of such large companies having thousands of employees in large office towers who provide manual services on behalf of their customers during working hours alone, the customers are taught to service themselves via the ubiquitous online channels or the upcoming robotized telephone, chat and whatsapp services:

“Do you want to have a loan, a mortgage or an insurance policy?! Please visit our website at (fake address) and fill in the online application form. Your application will be serviced within 48 hours, after you uploaded all the forms and necessary documentation! And if you want to receive our standard insurance policies really quickly, please use our latest Whatsapp service!”

The obvious result is that the lower and mid-level jobs at such commercial / financial companies disappear at a blistering speed, while being temporary replaced by (freelance and project-driven) consulting jobs to enable the deployment of complex digitization and robotization services. Services that allow banks and insurance companies to do the same amount of work with only half the personnel or less.

Also in case of more hands-on jobs, like construction worker, distribution worker, agricultural worker or factory worker, there is a trend to get rid of people who are on the company's payroll with fixed contracts and replace them by freelancers or temporary labour, acquired from specialized service companies or temporary labour agencies.

Great examples are the building company virtually without construction workers and the large sales & distribution company without distribution workers on the payroll. The responsibility, the organization and the ‘hassle’ of having executive personnel are ‘delegated away’ to specialized services companies and what remains are a skeleton crew of high-profile, strategic personnel and a few invoices per month that must be paid.

At the same time, the traditional small and medium enterprises – usually a great driver of new jobs – are extremely reluctant to hire new personnel on fixed contracts. They are either worried about not being able to dismiss people at will in more difficult economic times or about the substantial risk of workers getting ill and requiring both a replacement worker and a long-term sickness payment (i.e. the so-called double whammy). Especially the latter is a risk that keeps owners of small companies with 5 to 10 people (f.i. retailers) awake at night.

In especially the Eighties and early Nineties of last century, it was normal that sick workers received a governmental sickness benefit (i.e. Algemene Ziektewet) after only a few days of illness. However, the Dutch government found out that some (especially SME) employers abused this law in times of weak business, by sending their temporarily superfluous personnel home on ‘sick leave’ until better times reappeared.

As a consequence this traditional sickness benefit was replaced by a series of laws in which the employer remained responsible for the sickness payments for a much, much longer period – up to a year or even longer – and also was made more responsible for the causes of such cases of sickness leave. This forced employers to more closely monitor the physical and mental health of their personnel and led to a host of new businesses, involved with the monitoring and guidance of workers, the so-called Arbo-companies (i.e. labour circumstances).

While this generally was a manageable challenge for larger companies of at least 50 employers – as general sickness statistics started to work to their advantage – it often caused grave problems and sometimes even an untimely end for (very) small companies and f.i. “mom-and-pop” retail stores. The result was that they tried to prevent personnel from ever working on fixed contracts and only hired personnel with temporary contracts for a number of years in a row.

When you look at things like this, employees with fixed contracts seem to have very little in their favour; for large as well as small companies. Flexibility is hot and robotization and digitization are even hotter.

However, you can also look at workers from a different point of view. Perhaps it’s time to appreciate your workers again and look at them as the mortar of every company; even if they come with their human peculiarities and an administrative hassle and even when their productivity looks inferior to robotized and digitized services. You can do so for a number of reasons.

Do you trust your computers and robots enough to let them run everything in your company? And do you entrust your suppliers of temporary labour and commercial services to always keep YOUR priorities at number one and work at your advantage alone?

Is it not much more convenient and comforting to have a group of loyal workers around you that are on your payroll and feel really part of your company's family? People that are willing to run the extra mile when the work requires that? And people that you can ask about things that went wrong or could be made better? Your robotized service surely can’t answer your questions and inquiries, when a customer is offended or goes to your competitors out of the blue.

And do you trust the thesis, that your customers like to be helped by a robotized telephone operator, to have a positive outcome?! And that it won’t scare away your elder customers towards your competition, which does operate a call centre with real employees of their own?

When there are two things that both the robotization and the outsourcing of core activities – like call centres and distribution departments – cause, it is that a. customers feel more detached from commercial / financial services companies (i.e. feel more treated like a number than a customer of flesh and blood) and b. those human call centre and distribution service workers will never feel attached to your company in the first place. They work for your company today and for your competitor’s company tomorrow and don't mind much whether customers run away to your competition. They simply do their job and that's that. 

And be sure that your customers notice, whether a call centre employee is really attached to a company on whose behalf he works or just a hired gun from a specialized service provider. So perhaps companies should give the outsourcing of real core activities a second thought after all.

Last, but not least, there is the issue of SME companies and their personnel.

The legislators (i.e. national government) and the executive organizations for labour laws and work-related social security (i.e. local governments, as well as governmental executive bodies, like the Sociale Verzekeringsbank and the UWV) should think about new sickness laws that are less radical and ‘life-threatening’ for small companies, in case of long-term sickness. 

On the other hand these laws should still not open the floodgates for abuse of sickness money in economic hard times for companies. Restoring the situation from the Eighties would be reckless, but the current situation at the labour market is also unsustainable. That is one of the challenges that the new Dutch cabinet will have ahead in 2017. 

But finally: take a look at the people who work for you and consider giving them a fixed contract. They might not be so bad after all and they will be grateful and loyal in exchange for that.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The food truck and the oriental guerilla: the growing influence of the food multinationals on our daily lives

One could call this a successful attempt to do guerrilla marketing.

Unilever, the large Anglo-Dutch food, hygiene  and personal care multinational is sued by the organizer of the ‘Rollende Keukens’ (i.e. rolling kitchens) food truck festival. The giant company is suppoenaed for illegally hijacking this explicitely non-sponsored and artisanal festival with industrial products from its Conimex oriental food line. These products were sold via a food truck, that was owned by a festival participant, but ‘stealthily’ operated by Unilever.

The following snippets were printed in daily newspaper Het Parool.

“Ten years ago we started with ‘Rollende Keukens’. The event is becoming bigger and bigger, but it is still established upon small entrepreneurship”, according to organizer Igor Sorko of Rollende Keukens.

With the steady growth of the festival, the number of application requests from the big brands is growing. “Every year we turn down dozens of such applications. In March, two months before the festival weekend, we were approached by Conimex. They offered a substantial amount for being allowed to distribute food samples on the festival terrain. Also that offer we turned down, as it violates our principles.”

Therefore Sorko was flabbergasted when he read on various blogs one week after the festival, that Conimex had been present on Rollende Keukens after all, with the ‘Hurry for Curry’ foodtruck.

“What happened? Unilever had asked a foodtruck entrepreneur, via a marketing bureau, to create a truck on their behalf, register himself for Rollende Keukens and thus participate in the festival with (candid) Conimex products”, Sorko explains. At that moment, the brand behind this foodtruck was not revealed.

However, in hindsight we found out that there had been a whole media campaign around this event, with a website, a Facebook page and purchased adverts etc. ‘Nobody knew it was us, but we were present on the Rollende Keukens with our truck’, they boasted. When we noticed that, we went crazy.”

While the uninformed reader could argue what the fuzz exactly is about, it is for me a tell-tale signal that the giant food companies and fastfood chains don’t take prisoners in their battle for total control of the consumer market. And as a matter of fact, I can understand Igor Sorko’s anger and flabbergastedness.

These are strange times: it is a world of globalization and open borders and increasing power for the large multinational food and personal health companies, like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, Danone, Coca Cola Company and Monsanto, to name a few of the most important companies.

At the same time there is a strong craving among people for locally produced/grown food products of artisanal, handmade quality. Food that gives people a ‘heritage-ish’, ‘back to the barn’ feeling of long lost times. Food and snacks like homemade and handmade pizzas, sausages, hamburgers, handcut chips (aka French or Belgian fries), sandwiches made of artisanally baked bread and other finger food of artisanal, locally produced quality. Such food attracts a growing amount of people that are longing for the different flavours and the artisanal quality of the food of their youth. Hence, the foodtruck festival is a textbook example of this somewhat nostalgic, but very vibrant development.

When such a festival is ‘stealthily’ hijacked by one of the worlds largest industrial producers of food products – and as such the total opposite of what the festival endorses – in order to promote their own product lines, this violates the very foundation of this ‘back to basics’ development. And while the suppoena from ‘Rollende Keukens’ will probably become a mission impossible against the legal firepower of Unilever, it is a strong warning signal for the rest of the world that the food multinationals are playing for keeps.

In earlier times only the supermarkets and the well-known fast food chains – which were not so widespread over the country yet – were the domain of industrialized food production and there was still much room for traditional, quite artisanal snack bars, icecream parlours and cafeterias.

However, during the 21st century especially Unilever has intensified its presence in the whole distribution chain, with Unox soupstores, Bertolli lunchrooms, icecream parlours with Unilever scooped ice cream and last, but not least the ‘Broodje Unox’ (i.e. sausage roll) shops at the Dutch amusement parks, train stations and (musical/societal) festivals. Some of these experiments were a failure (for instance the Bertolli lunchrooms), but  especially Broodje Unox seems to be a big success.

Together with the tsunami of American fastfood chains that flooded The Netherlands, the number of places were people could eat real homemade, artisanal fastfood and snacks diminished substantially.

And that is not all: also the Dutch hotels and restaurants have become more and more in the grip of industrialized food producers and caterers, through the sales and usage of fully prepared, catered food as well as semi-finished products for soups, sauces, meat and vegetables. That is very convenient for cooking, but not always good for the taste and quality of restaurant and hotel food.

What most large food multinationals have in common, is that they both try to save an extra penny on expensive ingredients by replacing them with cheaper ones and make their food more preservable, so that they don’t have to throw away outdated stock.

Relatively expensive or unstable ingredients, like (double) cream, wheat flour, mushrooms, herbs and spices and real chicken/beef broth extracts are often replaced by cheaper or more stable ones, like salt (lots of it), sodium glutamate, citric acid, skimmed milk powder, modified starch and yeast extract, as well as artificial flavours and preservants.

This delivers a cheaper, more stable and preservable  end product, which nevertheless has a strong taste that is akin to the original product or even surpassing it. But it has nothing to do with real, artisanal cooking, using only real ingredients.

And can you – as a customer – tell which hotel or restaurant uses only real ingredients and which one uses industrially prepared food and semifinished products? Only the people with the strongest noses and the best trained taste buds can, but others are eating inferior products without knowing it.

Or do you really think that the “19” ingredients of McDonalds French fries are meant to give you a better eating experience than a handcut, hand-peeled and hand-baked potato of a superior potato species could?

This is for me the reason to support Igor “Don Quixote” Sorko in his battle against the windmills of the large food multinationals: a battle that he probably can’t and won’t win, but at the same time a battle worth fighting for. 

And perhaps, when you want to eat something really surprising ? Go for Sorko’s foodtrucks at the next ‘Rollende Keukens’ festival! But please don’t ‘Hurry for Curry’, as it might not be the real deal!

Monday, 5 September 2016

My hopes and wishes for The Netherlands after the 2017 national elections.

The year 2017 is an election year in The Netherlands.

And 2017 is also the year in which the current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the liberal-conservative party VVD wants to serve a third stint as PM in a cabinet in his name.

He wants to do so in any shape or form and with whoever want(s) to be his partner(s), excluding no party in advance at all, even in spite of the sometimes preposterous, disgusting and constitutionally illegal ideas of some of those parties. 

Regular readers know my opinion about this Prime Minister, as I wrote numerous articles about him and his policy.

Therefore I don’t want to waste my energy on an negative, vinegar-ish article, describing why a third term for Mark Rutte as Prime Minister would be bad for the country. People who repudiate this Prime Minister know themselves why they dislike and even despise him.

At the same time, the people who like him and his style of governance will never be convinced by my remarks about him. Remarks about his flaws and especially his lack of intellectual depth in conversations, a necessary grand vision, as well as a heartfelt sense of sanitary decency (to these eyes) and backbone.

Rutte’s fundamentally flawed government with the Christian-Democrat party CDA and especially the right-wing PVV (“Party for Freedom”) of Geert Wilders – as silent partner – was probably not a one-off, of which Rutte learned valuable lessons in order to never repeat it again.

To the contrary: I have a feeling that Rutte would repeat this experiment if he had too; under slightly different terms and circumstances, when it would be a necessary step to stay in charge of the country. Some would call this great political helmsmanship and agility-on-behalf-of-the-country; I call this selling one’s soul!

But enough is enough!

Instead, I want to express my hopes and wishes for the new cabinet in 2017 and for the policy that it will execute. This policy should bring The Netherlands in a better economic and sociologic position, and besides that, it should lead to more confidence, mutual trust, solidarity and togetherness for the whole Dutch population and for all who are depending on that.

These are my hopes and wishes for the next Cabinet:

1.  Stop the national depression that has The Netherlands in its grasp and replace it with a feeling of (humble) self-confidence and strenght again, based upon the nearly unlimited power of the Dutch population during the last 500 years. There is no reason for unfounded boasting, but also no reason for ‘talking oneself down to the ground’.

2.  Stop the poisonous climate in the national, political forae and in some national media, leading to an evermore poisonous climate in Dutch society itself, against different minorities as well as the so-called elites.

Show that the cabinet does not have to incorporate ‘extremist’ visions from the right and left wing, when they can’t beat those visions and their protagonists with a soft and civilized tone of voice. Let the political scoundrels spit their bile, but never consider this a normal 'modus operandi' or something that needs to be followed or even incorporated in the moderate political parties.

3.  Please let the next cabinet develop a vision on The Netherlands in the next 25 years. What is the spot on the horizon that we see as our most desired future and what kind of world do we want our children to live in. And let the cabinet act accordingly.

By continuing to live as there is no tomorrow, the world might come in a situation in which there is indeed no tomorrow.

Fossile fuels, the growing gap and 'two society-division' between rich and not-so-rich, climate change and global heating are subjects and events for which negligence can come at an extremely high price. ‘Wir haben es nicht gewuβt’ (i.e. ‘We did not know this’) is an untenable stand in case of these subjects and events.

Seek cooperation and mutual interests to solve climate and energy isses, but don’t use possible stagnation in the rest of the world as an excuse to do nothing ourselves. The same for this growing gap between rich and poor.

4.  Stop the utterly technocrat, economy-driven policy approach, by calling our country The Netherlands Ltd and by translating every societal development and event into economic, value-driven terms alone. By doing this, politicians grossly neglect the intangible side-effects and emotions that come in the process of such developments and events.

People are people and not durable means of production, which have only value in terms of the Gross Domestic Product of The Netherlands.

The Netherlands is definitely not a limited company and money is not the standard for every event, development or emotion within the country.

By adding economic value to everything and every event, the Dutch people feel themselves neglected in their humanity; as if they are little more than tiny wheels in a huge economic machine: humans as FTE’s (i.e. full time equivalents).

5.  Stop the development in which responsibility and liability in (f.i.) construction and production processes are delegated into oblivion; away from the principals or the main and subcontractors, thus leaving the people that do the actual work in the cold, when it comes to their safety, optimal labour circumstances, fair payment  and pleasure in working.

Don’t accept it, when main contractors for large building projects don’t have executing personnel of their own on the building sites and leave everything to numerous subcontractors and (foreign) freelancers.

Don't accept it either when companies only exist out of executive and management layers and leave the all work itself to subcontractors and freelancers.

6.  Make an end to the excessive flexibilization of the Dutch labour market and to the circumstance that – instead of more people getting job and income security as a consequence of new and improved government policies – actually less people get job and income security, due to ubiquitous freelancing, unavoidable flexible labour contracts and zero hour contracts for nearly all younger workers.

When government policies blatantly fail, please replace them by better and more elaborated ones. Don’t start with the quantitative and qualitative reduction of the existing protective laws with respect to the dismissal of workers with fixed contracts, but start by giving flex workers and freelancers more job and income security via social laws and regulations, as well as new forms of social security and feasible(!) protective policies.

Make sure that you have the unconditional commitment of the social partners before you set the wheels of law change in motion: employers’ organizations, freelancer’s organizations and labour unions.

7.  Be sure that the European Union survives the next decade and does not collapse under the ubiquitously mounting negative, anti-European and nationalist feelings, for as far as Dutch government leaders can enable that.

Lead by example by not only emphasizing the Dutch (!) interest in European discussions, but keeping a keen eye for the European citizens' interests, as they might differ on some occasions. Europe is not a simple sum of 27 individual countries interests...

8.  Don’t try to restore the economic situation from the year 2007 in Europe. This was the year when the debt bubbles in any shape or form were on the brink of imploding. By restoring this economic situation, we restore the same bubbles that brought us in this economic depression in the first place.

9.  Take the people, who are very vulnerable for the sometimes poisonous ideas of the left- and rightwing populists, very seriously and show them that you understand and (even) share their worries, disappointments and grief; even when their ideas might sometimes seem simplistic and/or overly aggressive against minorities and the elites of this country.

Try to take away their worries and when that’s impossible for various reasons, explain them why you can’t. Those people are not spoilt, little children who always want to get their way, but they want to see leaders that they can trust and rely upon, even if they don't agree with them.

10. Inform the people about the developments and risks of the digitization and robotization of the economy in The Netherlands. The digitization and robotization of the economy will probably come at the expense of numerous jobs that must be replaced by other jobs, in order to not get massive numbers of unemployed people during the next twenty-odd years.

Instead of putting the people to sleep with governmental marketing babble, 'chill', governmental infotainment commercials and stories about a brave, new world, these people need to get perspective on a better future again; even if they are poorly educated and trained. For instance in the form of early retirement plans, or with retrainings and refresher courses and the national stimulation of innovation, in order to create new jobs.

11. Stop with the delusion that budget balancing, lower taxes and ‘the magic wands of the markets’ are the answer to every economic and sociologic question, emerging in the Dutch society.

Start to act as an active government, by investing in (fundamental) science and research and innovation, but also in people’s (re)trainings and learning possibilities, in order to prevent those people from becoming “unemployed foregood”.

Start investing top dollar in primary and secondary schools, medium and high level vocational education and universities, while at the same time diminishing the administrative red tape that is haunting so many professors, teachers and additional personnel. Trust professionals for doing their jobs professionally and make sure that the new government enables their efforts, instead of hampering those with red tape, as well as useless inquiries and demands.

Don’t waste billions of euros on unnecessary building and construction activities (especially on excess and thus useless commercial real estate) and unnecessary infrastructure (i.e. the proverbial ‘bridges to nowhere’). Such investments costs billions and billions of euro in ‘dead money’ that neither yields to the economy nor to the general well-being in The Netherlands.

12. Be gentle with the ‘baby boomers’ and the last generation of survivors of the Second World War, but don’t let especially the former ‘eat away all the cake’ for the younger generations and especially the current youngsters under 27. Also these young generations want to have a decent retirement plan when they turn 65 (or 70). We simply can’t leave everything to the market...

13. And last but not least: be reliable as a government at one side, but humane and forgiving at the other side. Nobody asks for a perfect government, but nearly everybody wants a gentle, fair and reliable, non-technocratic one.

People want politicians that have a story to tell... Not politicians like the local supermarket branch manager, who only keeps the store (i.e. The Netherlands) open and has no ideas and visions of his own.

And to the Dutch people: be wise in what and for whom you vote! Don’t believe the wonderfully attractive music that the different Sirens and Pied Pipers of Hamelin make, as this music will lead you to your doom.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

What good is ICT education at primary school, when children lose the ability to express themselves verbally in a crystal clear and concise way, that is well understood by the people who read their work?!

It were just two news messages in the Dutch national media of last week. Two articles that were peculiar – in case of the first article – and disturbing, in the second case. In combination they sent a tell-tale signal about the state of the primary education in The Netherlands.

The first article was an article in the Dutch ICT magazine Computable that was printed last week. It was a plea, administered by the Dutch, national employer’s lobby organization VNO/NCW and the Dutch guild for the ICT industry ‘Nederland ICT’, to start with ICT and programming education at the Dutch primary schools:

Hans de Boer [chairman of VNO/NCW – EL]: Lessons in ICT knowledge and programming skills should become a regular topic in Primary and Secondary education. In these times of robotization and digitization of labour, it is essential in order to catch up with the future in later years. If we want to remain competitive and want to offer people a lasting perspective on a prosperous future, people need to have ICT knowledge and programming skills, irrespective of their future choice of jobs.

Nederland ICT CEO Lotte de Bruijn states: With the ICT as driving force, there are chances present in all industrial sectors, like logistics, healthcare, agriculture. There should be a Cabinet’s vision involved that superseeds the individual ministries. Only then we are able to profit optimally from the chances of digitization.

Chairman of  VNO/NCW Hans de Boer
during BNR Newsroom in 2013
Picture copyright of: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Although I am (of course) not against teaching children important stuff at an early age, teaching ICT knowledge and programming skills were not exactly the first things that I was thinking of, as an enhancement for the curriculum of today’s primary schools. 

It is the same with teaching English at Dutch primary schools, as it happens today: I understand what people are thinking, but I just don’t know whether I agree with it. An old expression in The Netherlands is that you first should be able to walk, before trying to step on a bike.

And that very expression was exactly the point in a disturbing article, printed yesterday in Het Algemeen Dagblad:

Children are poorly educated in writing clear and concise texts, that are easily understood by their reading public. Teachers don’t know how to train their pupils in order to enhance their skills. With earlier alarms on behalf of this very topic, involving various Dutch primary schools, nothing has been done after all, according to researchers of Utrecht University.

Of the eight weekly hours that are spent on (Dutch) language training, only 45 minutes are spent on writing texts. Pupils are hardly trained on HOW to do that, as teachers don’t know exactly how to instruct their pupils to this regard, according to the researchers, two doctoral students of Utrecht University.

“Nowadays, children hear that they have to write a text about a certain topic”, according to Monica Koster. “Those children write down the first things that pop up in their heads, thus making the resulting text incoherent and unclear". 

During the research of Koster and her peer Renske Bouwer at 52 primary schools, it became clear that two-third of all pupils cannot communicate a relatively simple message on paper.

The average quality of the writing lessons on primary schools was insufficient. Teachers first and foremost put energy in reading and vocabulary lessons. Writing skills are hardly mentioned in the textbooks. Also in teacher training schools the writing skills are hardly educated. In the meantime even vocational schools and universities started complaining about the poor level of the texts that students create.

According to Amos van Gelderen, teacher language acquisition at Hogeschool Rotterdam and researcher at the Kohnstamm Institute (centre for education research of the University of Amsterdam): “Children simply cannot write good enough. 

They can’t create a text that is so clear and concise that their readers understand it directly”, he states. “That is not their fault. Teachers have insufficient attention for writing, as it costs time and is hard to verify. They miss the right expertise”. 

In the remainder of the article, the researchers endorse a teaching method “that could dramatically improve the children’s writing skills in a short period of time”, but that is not my point.

My point is that children nowadays get seemingly insufficient and arguably poor education in one of the most important skills that the human race has to offer: their writing skills. Both the available time for writing – 45 minutes (!) per week – and the below-par quality of the education to this respect, leaves a lot to be desired. 

Reading skills and vocabulary are undoubtedly extremely important too, but clear and concise writing is paramount in the life of every boy and girl. Especially as the chances to sufficiently acquire these skills at a later age, are quite dim and the consequences for one’s career and future are grave.

Already in the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, people possessed the skills of writing texts and books that were both concise and clear and interesting to read and educate: even nearly 3000 years after they have been written. Numerous students are daily educated in the writings of Homer, Cicero, Socrates and Plato, even though these authors have passed away thousands and thousands of years ago .

Writing and communicating via texts is one of those skills that sets the human race apart from every other animal in the world, as such communication (texts and books) strongly outlast the life span of the authors. 

Therefore the fact that “we” seemingly cannot educate our children anymore to express themselves in a way that everybody can easily understand, is deeply disturbing. The fact that this is not “just another research study about just another subject”, but research of which the conclusions are broadly endorsed by the Dutch education inspection, as well as by teachers and professors at vocational schools and universities, makes this even more disturbing.

When you oppose this last news message against the plea for teaching programming skills and ICT knowledge at primary schools, as quoted in the first Computable article, the latter request seems quite grotesque and superfluous.

Unfortunately, as a member of the participation council at my children’s primary school, I already have experienced that the working days of primary schools are already “filled to the brim” with lessons and educational targets and goals, leaving little time for yet another goal and another politician’s / lobby group’s dream. 

These are targets and goals, which in some cases are either quite political or ideological in nature: that is at least my personal gutfeeling. 

Teachers are constantly complaining about their elevated and mounting working pressure and about their administrative backlog that keeps them busy until late in the evening every day.

Besides the normal skills necessary for their profession, like good knowledge of all aspects of the Dutch language, as well as sound knowledge of children's math, history, science and geography, primary school, teachers already had to learn English at an educational level. 

Forcing them to learn ICT and programming skills too, would ask very much of these teachers, while ICT training on schools by specialized teachers would be too expensive – especially for small primary schools. For secondary schools, this is a different story of course.

More important, however, is the question where these ICT and programming lessons would fit in in the roughly 6 hours of classes per day and 30 hours per week and which other part of the education should drop off the current curriculum.

There is no way that new subjects and topics can be squeezed in the school curriculum, without diminishing or even cutting out other subjects, which are also considered to be of high importance. 

In the current school time table there are no ‘spare’ hours anymore. How else can it be explained that something with paramount importance as ‘writing skills’ gets only these totally insufficient 45 minutes per week.

Basically, the vast majority of the primary schools are definitely not administering poor education, to these eyes. They are also not disconnected from reality or ‘teaching the wrong things right’, is my firm opinion. Most teachers and daily school executives are doing the best they can to administer the best education that they can deliver.

Yet, they simply cannot find the time to squeeze all these new subjects and political / ideological trends and topics in. They don’t have the time available for that. It is time for politics and lobby groups to consider that and to focus on what really(!) matters for young schoolchildren to learn.

Writing skills are definitely one of those subjects. Of programming and ICT skills at that age, I am not so sure.