On the day that he retired, 1 February, Andries de Grip and his wife moved to Utrecht. His close colleagues laughed. Typical of De Grip, such strict planning. Why Utrecht? To live closer to their children and grandchildren. At the same time, he doesn’t just see his retirement as a farewell to his working life, but also as the beginning of something new, which will have a better chance of flourishing in a new environment.
But let’s first talk about what he did for the past forty or so years: research, in particular into life-long learning. About 21 years ago, he held his inaugural lecture on that topic, now his farewell speech. “In fact, it concerns all learning that you do after you have completed your formal education. In the form of courses or training, but also especially learning on the job, down to practical issues such as splitting your screen during a Zoom meeting. It also includes the learning you do in your private life, which is why we now prefer to speak of life-long development.”
De Grip thinks that the need to keep learning has only become greater. “That is because of the speed of technological innovations. There isn’t a sector that hasn’t been affected by information technology. Car mechanics are a good example. They used to be trained in car mechanics, now they have to know a lot about computers and software. Additional education has also become more important because of the receding retirement age. In 2006, the average age of retirement was about 61, now it is four and a half years later. So, we have to maintain our competences for a longer period.”
Fear of failing
Half of the employees, said De Grip in his farewell speech, do on average one course every two years. His research in call centers showed that this is advantageous for productivity. If employees do a week’s training, meant to understand customer enquiries more quickly, their productivity increases by 10 per cent. Learning by doing at work has a similar favourable effect.”
One quarter of all workers, however, never do courses. This is mainly the case among the lower educated. They are less likely to take the initiative to do additional training, while it does pay off. The lower educated who did additional training in the previous two years, earn 2.6 per cent more than their colleagues who did not. One of the reasons to not do so appeared to be fear of failing. They also set more store by their free time and are less open to new experiences.
How does the UM give shape to life-long learning? De Grip: “A point in favour is that there is a lot of training on offer, varying from behavioural competences such as assertiveness or negotiating, to language and software courses. It reflects the ‘learning culture’, which differs per faculty. In 2018, I worked on the UM’s sustainable employability monitor and then you see that people in one workplace are allowed to make more mistakes than in others, receive more feedback, have better development plans.”
But actually, life-long learning is still in its infancy, also at the UM. “Look at the Internet, at the accessibility of information. It is important that you can find something quickly at the time when you need it, but that isn’t always possible. Employees in a commercial company like Siemens, can ask all sorts of questions, to which they will receive an immediate answer with the aid of artificial intelligence.”
Partly because of the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), of which De Grip was one of the first employees in 1986, life-long learning ended up on the national policy agenda. “We had no clue how many employees were learning on the work floor, until ROA distributed its first survey in 2004. This showed, among others, the tremendous importance of learning by doing, which encompasses 96 per cent of all learning. Afterwards, that percentage appeared everywhere, including in the memos from the Ministries of Education and Social Services.”
Besides life-long learning, ROA also became known for its labour market forecasts. “We still do that kind of research, which is funded by four ministries, UWV, Randstad and the Samenwerking Beroepsonderwijs Bedrijfsleven. The purpose is to inform those who are looking for a study programme and employers about developments on the labour market. In which professions can we expect shortages? The Ministry of Education also uses the forecasts to justify new study programmes. We are not very happy with that, because our figures are not meant for such purposes.”
Sometimes, politicians take off with the results. “Based on the shortages that we predicted, the Van Rijn Committee advised in 2019 to shift funding to science and technology education. But that was rather a one-sided interpretation of our forecasts, because we also anticipated large shortages in education and care.”
De Grip didn’t hide his indignation and wrote an opinion piece in Trouw about how the committee ‘took completely the wrong route with the advice,’ because in doing as they did, the training capacity of non-technical programmes would decline and there would be the threat of a shortage of teachers. ‘The thing that is frustrating here is that the Van Rijn Committee seems to be lacking in any expertise when it comes to how the labour market works.’
To some extent related to the labour market forecasts is the graduate surveys that ROA has published for more or less thirty years. “We created the UM scanner, the HBO monitor, and together with CBS we do something similar for MBO. Questions include how long does it take for school-leavers to find a job, on average, how much will they earn, how satisfied are workers with the study programmes that they completed?”
He sees strengths and weaknesses in the way in which the UM prepares its students for the labour market. The main trump card is problem-based learning. “We see that problem-solving competences are becoming increasingly important on the labour market. But also communicative skills and the international context, fixed ingredients in PBL, are essential to working in teams.”
A weakness, even though strides have been made during COVID-19, is the digitization of education. “How does PBL hold up against more hybrid forms of education, where you combine on-site and online education? There is a world to be won in that field. At the department of Finance at SBE, they post short videos online in which they explain something difficult, which is superefficient. There are also plans to set up online tutorial groups, together with other universities.”
De Grip is not the kind of professor who will battle on just as hard after retirement. He will supervise a few PhD students and will stay involved, albeit from the side-lines, with a project assigned to them by the German government. It is, among other things, about the effects of artificial intelligence on a company’s productivity and the employees.
He has had a pleasant rhythm for months now, he says; he works in the morning and either walks, cycles or looks after his grandchildren in the afternoon. Something he had too little time for in the past, is reading. He has a reading club together with two others, they discuss books about things like philosophy and artificial intelligence.
“What were the names of those bestsellers about AI….” He gets up, walks over to his bookcase and returns in front of the screen a little later. “They are downstairs.”