A closer look on Venlo

Nathan Hennessy and Jeppe Bjerre Trans report-

In the south of the Netherlands can be found leaders in technology innovations and logistics. Venlo is a city unknown outside of the country, still struggling to attract qualified labor force and young talents. Despite being full of potential, it is fighting with a bad reputation and a history of unemployment after a closure of mines in the past.

In this series of four articles, Euroscope takes a closer look on the struggles and innovations of this interesting and buzzing Dutch city, situated only a stone’s throw away from the border to the German Ruhr-district.

With buzzwords such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘smart solutions’ driving the prominent sectors of the city, two Euroscope writers have investigated how such a discreet city can quietly drive the beating heart of Europe and still remain relatively unknown.

 

Venlo’s trucking struggle: Brain drain can undermine success

Dutch city of Venlo is one of the main logistics hub in Europe. Logistics companies in the area though are struggling with finding qualified, young people to carry on the success. The city is looking towards the EU for a solution.

By Jeppe Bjerre Trans

Situated in the heart of Europe, Dutch city Venlo has for several years been the main center for logistic companies in Europe. The city has previously won the prize for most desirable location for logistics in Europe and is projected to be winning the same prize in 2018.

However, the city is struggling with an aging population and workforce – and young people don’t seem interested in settling down and working in the region’s massive logistics sector according to education manager at Fontys University of Tecnology and Logistics in Venlo, Peter Heiden.

“Already now, there are not enough young people in the region to be able to deliver enough good, qualified employees for the logistic companies located here. And that can end up being a huge problem for the city both now and in the future,” Peter Heiden says.

Cooperation across the border

To seek a solution to the problem, the city is participating in the EU funded INTERREG-program, which seeks to strengthen cross border cooperation between Germany and the Netherlands. Venlo is placed very close to the border of Germany and is only one hours drive away from big German cities like Essen, Düsseldorf and Cologne. The INTERREG project has been running since the 1990s – and the focus of the project was recently renewed to be specially focused on avoiding a highly skilled and educated young people from leaving the area – a phenomenon also known as brain drain.

According to Peter Heiden this project can be part of the solution to keep young people in the area.

“Since 2001 we have had a lot of German students coming over the border to study logistics here in Venlo,” Peter Heiden says.

According to him, the hope is now that some of these German students will end up staying in Venlo after their education is over to work in the massive logistics sector.

Mayor is aware of problem

That hope is shared by Antoin Scholten who is the mayor of Venlo, according to his spokesperson Hans van den Berk.

Mr. van den Berk explains that the municipality of Venlo acknowledges the challenge the city is facing with the issue of brain drain. Besides the INTERREG-program, this has also led the municipality of Venlo to take other measures to avoid the exodus of young people.

“In the last three to four years we have made initiatives to improve the education and the infrastructure in the city. Our universities have opened new buildings and so on – but of course it’s not easy to change the development fast,” Hans van den Berk says.

As an example of new logistic initiatives in Venlo, a new rail connection will soon be established in the city. This rail terminal is going to be the biggest domestic loading and discharge station in the Netherlands, according to the Dutch real estate organization WDP.

There is still hope

Hans van den Berk explains that the municipality of Venlo is confident, that the city will maintain its position as one of the leading logistics hubs in Europe – despite the problems the city is facing with brain drain.

“In general, I would say that if there are attractive jobs in an area, people will move there for them,” the spokesperson says and continues:

“We have examples of young people that move away from Venlo to take their education in for example Amsterdam – and then return to Venlo to work because Amsterdam isn’t that attractive any more, which has to do with problems like tourism, environment and so on,” he says.

To further push that development, Hans van den Berk explains that the city is working on an initiative called Terug naar Venlo – which is Dutch for “Back to Venlo” – to attract young people to take jobs in Venlo after they’ve finished their education in other Dutch cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam.

Jobs and innovation will make Venlo attractive

Venlo is currently taking measures to avoid young people from moving away from the city. Dutch sociologist Tialda Haartsen gives her view on the city’s strategy.

By Jeppe Bjerre Trans

The problem of young people leaving to work in bigger cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, has lead the municipality of the Dutch city Venlo to take measures to try to keep young people from going away from the city. Initiatives like a cross border cooperation with the Ruhr-district in Germany and modernizing infrastructure and universities are examples of initiatives the municipality of Venlo have made.

But what does in fact make a city attractive to young people? Euroscope have asked Dutch sociologist Tialda Haartsen from the University of Groningen, who is an expert in population decline in the Netherlands.

“Innovation and new experiences are very important – and of course the possibility to get jobs in the city is something that attracts young people,” Tialda Haartsen says and continues:

“Cities have to look nice, have a rich cultural life and provide possibilities to have fun. There must be an impression that a lot is going on and the general reputation of the city has to be good.”

Attract rather than keep

According to the sociologist, the city of Venlo would benefit from switching their strategy and mindset in terms of brain drain.

“Instead of being afraid of young people moving away from the city, I would rather try to actually attract young people that are interested in what the city has to offer,” the sociologist says.

She explains, that even though Venlo can’t compete with big cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam in terms of reputation, the city could still be an attractive place for young people because of it’s initiatives with innovation and the high possibility to get a job.

“The city surely has a product that could attract young people. We know that young people are very interested in education with a good possibility of getting a job afterwards – so the city needs to advertise more and make sure to reach young people that could be interested in living in the city,” Tialda Haartsen states.

Wearables in the workplace

Marketing shows that tech is sexy, so the trendy students of a small Dutch city are  working on a solution to help it’s image problem: wear the tech.

By Nathan Hennessy

Students at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Venlo are working on innovative, streamlining solutions within the city’s logistics industry in order to power-up the beating transport heart of Europe. The project is called LOGwear, an abbreviation of ‘logistical wearables’, and aims to automate the data entry and logistics management within warehouses.

The wearables market has typically been developed with fitness and exercise or as a kind of smartphone extension. Smart watches and fitness wristbands are the best known on the market. For the purpose of streamlining and efficiency, logistics enterprises are looking to introduce similar technology to the workplace.

The goal behind the LOGwear project is developing a solution that makes an accessible solution to logistical needs. This currently involves creating an advice form from which companies can specify their logistical needs within the environment of warehouse management.

The ambition of a project like this is to find new ways to integrate technology into one of Venlo, and the Netherlands’, biggest industries in order to keep it at the cutting edge. The starting scope of this project is to give warehouses a tool that gives them an easy option to transfer their paper and barcode scanners to wearable scanners, keeping hands free and cutting down data-entry time.

LOGwear project manager Danny Jonker says his students have the opportunity to boost small-to-medium sized tech enterprises against multinationals through developing a basic wearable solution that can then be further adapted.

According to Mr Jonker, there are many wearables technologies that have been developed but are not being marketed as logistical solutions. Their role is to provide a ‘knowledge base’ that can function autonomously in helping businesses select an already-developed wearable  solution fit for their environment.

Mr. Jonker says, “ wearables are an emerging trend in the logistics sector alongside robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles  and AI.”

“We see that small-to-medium enterprises in general have a difficulty keeping up with these trends because of three reasons. They do not have the money, expertise, and time necessary for the research.”

Venlo, situated in the in the southern Dutch region of Limburg, acts as a transportation and transhipping gateway from the Rotterdam and Antwerp harbour into greater Europe. Much of Europe’s stock is transported to warehouses in Venlo. It is the effective management of goods in these warehouses that ensures speedy delivery throughout Europe.

“The big goal of this project is primarily to develop the website that is self sustaining, which is being build by logistics, marketing, and IT students,” says Mr. Jonker.

The big picture of this project for Venlo is to progress towards a wearables-infused transportation industry in Europe. Mr Jonker gives the example that wearable smart glasses (think Google Glass) are already being trialled by truck drivers to show routes and destination information via alternate reality. Wearables in the warehouse is just another step towards smarter transportation in Europe.

The project has received 1.5 million euros in funding, with half of this coming from the European Regional Development Fund. LOGwear has received this funding alongside other logistics-oriented projects in the region to encourage  innovation and create further high-skilled jobs along this section of the Dutch/German border. LOGwear is also attracting talent from the Germany university Hochschule Niederrhein in Monchengladbach.

Western Europe has the third  largest market for the adoption of wearable technology, behind the China and the US respectively. According to market researcher company, GFK, big tech companies are squarely focused on developing these devices with a focus on health and fitness devices such as Fit-Bit. This is followed by smart watches.

Smart solutions and the automation of Venlo

Is innovation always key to increasing labour forces in struggling cities – a case study for Venlo, NL

By Nathan Hennessy

The modest Dutch city of Venlo is one that is very proud of its logistics sector. With the support of government initiatives, it has become the logistics hotspot of Europe due to a high concentration of warehouses and transport companies. Logistics companies set up shop next door to act as consultants so that Europe’s goods keep circulating on time and in the most effective ways possible.

Euroscope investigated how government and EU support has made this fairly discreet Dutch city so important to the backbone of Europe. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) negotiates contributions to the region in order to continue driving innovation in the hope that it will increase labour forces, reduce unemployment, and keep youth in the area.

Every three years a series of projects in Venlo receive funding to address these goals, but only through agreed cooperation with partners on the German border. With students and logistics companies in Venlo and neighbouring German cities, smart solutions are on the table. These solutions use technological innovation in order to reduce cost and inefficiency, in ways idealistically similar to automation.

High skilled labour is the future

“Historically, the Dutch in this region have looked to Germany. Germany made its profits off of production. Language is a border — right. The Dutch have people who can speak the language and leave to work there. There are perhaps 50 million on the other side of the border that could work here, but it’s a one-way street. The Germans did not speak the language,” says Peter Haiden, logistics coordinator and manager for the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Venlo.

With logistics fast dominating the profitable industry of Venlo, Mr. Heiden has noticed in the last 20 years that German production pulled labour from Venlo. In 2017, he says there is now the surprising issue of too many jobs and not enough people. The big difference being that Venlo’s logistics industry requires skilled graduates in this discipline, but it is young and Germany has only recently introduced it.

Heiden acknowledges that Venlo is not in need of more employment opportunities, but rather some way to attract young talent.

“In this region, there is a lot of work in logistics. What you can see is not enough young people to be able to deliver enough potential to our own network. So we look across the border [to Germany].”

The implication is that young talent either does come to Venlo, or does not stay. But Venlo, part of the Dutch region of Limburg, is below the national unemployment average of 6%. So the questions that arise is why is this region receiving a sizeable share of almost €115 million  in order to create jobs, and why has the emphasis shifted so strongly towards skilled labour?

Self-sustaining infrastructure

“Let me use the example of a dentist,” begins Andrija Blagojevic, project manager for BAS Logistics’ ‘Smart Asset Management’.

“Any early problems can be detected in the early stages and it’s no big deal. If you wait some years and don’t see a dentist, but have some pain, the teeth may need to go. Its painful and costly,” says Mr Blagojevic, anecdotally explaining the role of his project.

Smart Asset Management is being developed by a team of around a dozen experts and students, many from outside of Venlo. Its goal is to use sensor technology inside of infrastructure that can then be analysed and alert the asset owners with an notification that advises check-ups or needed repairs before structural degradation is visible.

“Infrastructure — roads, bridges, and tunnels,” is the team’s focus according to Blagojevic. He continues, “After the product is created, the ‘warning system’, all we will require is analysts who can confirm the alerts sent to asset owners.”

When asked how this will help create jobs in Venlo, Mr. Blagojevic emphasised how this smart solution instead cuts long term costs for asset owners due to the proactive engagement of the analysts. The tradeoff of such results will conceivably mean less demand for long-term infrastructure maintenance, and more on teams of analysts.

The mission statement for BAS was to continue developing solutions to reduce cost and unnecessary labour. An irony of this trend would be the hypothetical introduction of an algorithm that automatically determines the seriousness of data received from the sensors and autonomously sends an alert. Such a development would not only mean less engineering labour, but also less analyst supervision.

Hands-free or hand-less warehouses

Back at Fontys University, a warehouse management solution is being developed by logistics students on the same ERDF scheme.

The project is called LOGwear (abbreviated: logistics wearables) and has the goal of producing a solution in the form of a website that can connect Venlo’s warehouses to wearable technology.

The team hopes that their solution will keep warehouses in Venlo at the cutting edge by removing the necessity of clunky scanning devices and paper trails. Instead, a small scanning apparatus attached to a glove, ring, or glasses will be able to scan and automate data entry and reduce the burden on labour to simply moving boxes.

Danny Jonker, the team’s manager says, “The purpose is less about time and efficiency, and more about accurate stock keeping and reducing the margin for human error.”

The only apparent underlying demand on warehouse-floor labour is moving boxes from A-to-B whilst swiftly flicking your wrist in the direction of a packaging label, should a solution like this work. The necessity for a labour force only seems required until a fully automated solution that can manage stock without the requirement for human hands.

Future of the Venlo in the hands of small-medium sized enterprise?

What becomes apparent when speaking to these leaders within Venlo’s logistics sector is that the labour needs of the city rest with the small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Venlo’s accolades as a logistics hotspot have been praised by all the sources contacted in the city. Industries with sizeable labour forces are not emphasised in Venlo, and yet the unemployment rate remains relatively low.

Despite over half a million euros from the ERDF being allocated to this region, the purpose seems squarely targeted at innovation with the hope that it will mean secure and expanding employment prospects.

Perhaps this is already the case. According to Mr. Heiden, “What we see in Venlo is an image problem, not an unemployment problem. The reason Venlo needs to secure its young talent is because logistics has only been taught for the last twenty years.”

Automation may be in the backs of the minds of logistics wizards in Venlo, but as the city’s main industry, this may not be an issue. With continued ERDF encouraging SMEs, the future of the city appears to be in the hands of innovative young solutions providers.

If the road to automation is a threat to less-skilled labour forces, it will be the the Dutch government and SMEs that determine how innovation either harms the city’s future employment prospects or boosts it with technology in tow.

 

 

 

 

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