Rotterdam’s lesson: From harbour to hub

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Rotterdam has found innovative ways to build its citizens' skills and include marginalised people. [Moyan Brenn/Flickr]

Cities have a major part to play in ensuring all their residents have the skills they need to be active and integrated members of society. This is a challenge mayors should embrace, writes Ahmed Aboutaleb.

Ahmed Aboutaleb is the mayor of Rotterdam and a member of the EUROCITIES executive committee.

Rotterdam’s port is one our most recognisable features, and for many years has been one of the main drivers of our economy and a major local employer. Since the 1980s however, employment at the port has been in steady decline. At the same time, our economy is diversifying, branching out into areas like health, distribution, consumer services, knowledge and education. These sectors require new skills, and as the city authority we see it as our role to ensure our citizens are equipped with the skills they need to keep pace with the changing labour market.

We pride ourselves on being a diverse and tolerant city, with around half our residents either foreign-born or second generation immigrants. We are also one of the youngest cities in Europe. Many of my fellow European mayors will recognise the challenges this can bring. Unemployment is at its highest among immigrant groups and young people. They are often the hardest to reach, so it is up to us as city leaders to design programmes and policies that target those who need help most.

Tailored and innovative approaches are needed to ensure people can participate in the labour market. In Rotterdam we pioneered the use of social impact bonds in continental Europe with our ‘Buzinezzclub’. The initiative has enabled hundreds of young people to come off benefits and realise their business or career dreams. It offers a full package of support, and operates on a ‘pay for success’ principle so, providing the project produces positive outcomes over a defined period, investors are in for good returns.

Equipping people with the skills to succeed in the economy of today and the future doesn’t just happen in the classroom. In Rotterdam, we are committed to helping the future workforce develop 21st century skills, and we have built up a coalition of schools, teachers, partners in culture and sport, companies, welfare organisations and social enterprises to lead the shift from classroom to real-world education. This transition is driven by the need for skills in IT, enterprise and personal leadership. We benefit from a variety of organisations that support the development of these skills, such as the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship. This uses the knowledge and network from the Rotterdam Erasmus University to deliver courses for students, entrepreneurs, SMEs and corporates. The STC-Group is also headquartered here, and offers vocational training for the shipping, logistics, transport and process industries in both the public and private domain.

The nature of work is changing. Low-skilled jobs are increasingly being split into ‘tasks’, with the rise of a ‘gig economy’ replacing zero-hours contracts. Organisations are tending to contract independent workers for a short period, but many disadvantaged groups struggle to come by this kind of work. Crowdsourcing for work is also becoming popular, but while this has an important role to play in generating neighbourhood connections, it threatens a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of income and job security. We see our role as ensuring these platforms produce benefits for all involved.

We’re currently experimenting with ‘microfranchising’, which involves matching individuals with tasks they can complete with their existing skills and minimal equipment, while additional tasks such as branding, pricing, payment and admin are done centrally. The idea is that people who have been out of the labour market for some time can use their skills and gain confidence.

Having the right skills can make the difference between participating fully in the economy and society and being excluded. As city leaders, we know our populations and labour markets well enough to identify and predict trends and potential gaps. Our local knowledge and expertise can feed into designing more effective European policies and programmes that produce results for citizens.

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