Read on
The future success of the bio-based industry depends on the availability of highly educated professionals, in technical and commercial areas; people who are able to think in terms of systems and who can make sound business cases. ‘In the coming years, the business sector will definitely need around 1,000 of these professionals, but right now you cannot even find 400.’
Editorial office

These are the words of Johan Verbruggen, researcher with SPK in Belgium. He was responsible for an investigation into the need of the Dutch and Flemish bio-based business sector for qualified staff, in the context of the Interreg project Borderless Bio-based Education (Grenzeloos Biobased Onderwijs).

Knowledge falls short

Flanders and the Netherlands lead the way in the bio-based economy, but the knowledge of current employees in the industry is still inadequate to exploit the growth potential of this sector. At least, that is the expectation of 14 Flemish and Dutch partners that are taking part in the three-year ‘Borderless Bio-based Education’ project. In this project they are working together to develop demand-oriented education and retraining programmes at secondary, higher education and university levels. They are also investing in better training and research facilities for education and the business sector.

The first phase of the research, consisting of a market consultation, has just been completed. This involved visiting the business sector, overarching organisations and educational institutions to draw up a list of existing educational programmes and of the demands of businesses. ‘We talked with experts from joint ventures which are involved in the bio-based economy, such as Biobased Delta. Specific questions we asked included: which competences are required, what are your expectations and ideas, what additions could be made, what is less relevant? We then asked individual companies: what does the bio-based economy mean specifically for your business? Is there any growth? What kinds of recruitment do you expect to be making in this specific domain? And so on. We discussed the conclusions again with the experts. What we end up with is a concrete picture of the young professional of the future.’

In a subsequent phase, we will identify how education should adapt. A third phase will tackle the development of the educational infrastructure and finally, a dynamic ICT knowledge platform will be developed which contains overviews of courses, facilities, current research programmes and possible internship posts.

Area under development

In the first phase, both the experts and the businesses put forward the view that bio-based is an area under development. ‘That means it is important that students are be able to make system analyses and have a command of systems thinking. The professional of the future will play an important part in the business sector, and not only in meeting specific demands at a certain point in time in a specific company. He needs to be able to examine existing systems critically and consider how an alternative can be offered from the bio-based side. It should also be possible to translate this alternative into concrete business cases.’

‘What emerged very clearly was that the student should not only specialise, but also have a picture of the chain in its totality. Thus a chemist needs to understand what the problems are in the production of biomass. The continuous production of biomass of equal quality is a task for the producer. That means that a chemist has to learn how to deal with that variability. On the other hand, a producer of biomass must also understand the demands of its customers in the chemical industry. In brief: wherever you end up, you must have a total view of the chain in order to understand the issues. If you are able to work in a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral way, you will really make forward progress.’

According to Verbruggen, this area has not been given enough attention in education to date. ‘The Netherlands has come slightly further in this than Flanders, thanks to project-oriented education. But there too, it will have to evolve further in the direction of entrepreneurial education. Not every student will become an entrepreneur, but he must learn a skill like entrepreneurship. In that respect, the educational institutions have a lot of work to do.’

Expectation of growth

One of the striking results from Verbruggen’s stocktaking is that businesses anticipate employing a good 1,000 new employees per year who have knowledge of the bio-based economy, while the courses deliver no more than three to four hundred each year. ‘That demand is coming from the large companies as well as the smaller ones. The smaller companies also have greater expectations of growth in the bio-based economy than the larger companies.’

But this does not mean that the bio-based SME experience many disruptive developments. ‘Compared with other sectors, like pharmaceuticals and the classic chemical industry, the push from small enterprises which dare to take greater risks and embrace radical innovation continues to lag behind. The educational institutions could play a more active role in this as well. Making a greater effort is definitely an item for consideration for the future.’

This article was created in cooperation with Biobased Delta