Increasing the international competitiveness of ports and cities by leveraging human resources

Renée Rotmans (Port of Rotterdam Authority)

The Rotterdam port region is Europe’s largest port and industrial complex. As a facilitator for import and export, the Rotterdam port region creates significant economic activity for the local and regional economies (Hollen et al., 2015). Ports also provide essential support for commercial activities in the hinterland, because ports are able to make crucial connections between land and sea transport (Ducruet et al., 2010; Ferrari et al., 2010). The Rotterdam port region is an important European entry gate for trade and a hotspot for energy, industry, innovation and digitalization (Port of Rotterdam Authority, 2019). It is currently going through two transitions related to renewable energy sources and digitalization. In view of that, there is a compelling need to invest in social innovation and underlying strategic investments in human resources (Birkinshaw et al., 2008; Damanpour et al., 2010). Capitalizing on the human capital in port firms is of fundamental importance for dealing with these challenges in a way that fosters competitiveness and economic growth (Volberda et al., 2014). After all, it is people who steer a modern port in the right direction.

In this point of time, continuing the human capital process routinely the way it has been done for years, does not work any longer (Way et al., 2018). Neither does the classical approach of ‘lifetime employment’, where the firm takes care of its human capital from entering the firm till retirement, hold any longer (Harris et al., 2019). The power and influence of human capital within firms, moreover, has long been underestimated, while the power of the firm has long been overrated (Volberda et al., 2014; Laursen & Foss, 2003). Subsequently, over the last decade, a new perspective on labor has appeared where stability, bureaucracy, order and control are replaced for agility, flexibility and instability (Harris et al., 2019; Way et al., 2018).

Employees increasingly aim to choose their own career path, change positions more often and get into ‘job-hopping’ between different firms (Howaldt et al., 2016; Laursen & Foss, 2003). This new perspective on labor poses unprecedented strategic challenges for firms, employers, employees, educational institutes and governmental bodies. The complexity of these challenges makes it important for different organizations to work together in cross-sectoral partnerships. Cross-sectoral partnerships consisting of port-firms, the local government, labor unions, trade unions, educational institutes and employees in the Port of Rotterdam provide great opportunities in the field of intersectoral cooperation and are of great importance to modernize the local labor market.

The importance of cross-sectoral partnerships in the port of Rotterdam arose during the social dialogue in 2013 (Transport-online, 2013). During that period of time, it became clear that there had been a lack of substantial awareness of intersectoral collaboration in the field of human capital. It was important that the business community could be challenged to think and work more closely together with other parties to jointly modernize the local labor market and to connect port and port cities more closely. This has been a huge step, since individualism and competition have been fundamental aspects of the Port of Rotterdam for a long time (Hollen et al., 2015).

The Rotterdam port region employs 180.000 people. Low-skilled dockworkers have dominated the region since 1872 (Port of Rotterdam Authority, 2019). The first dockworkers were portrayed as rough and hardworking people who arranged everything themselves. The following statement by former dockworker Hein Mol in the 1900s (Mol, 1900) clearly reflects this. In his book in 1900 he stated that: “Dockworkers were difficult to regulate. They formed a broad, undeveloped, indifferent, fancy mass, who could start moving quickly and spontaneously”. The dockworkers became elusive for traditional trade unions and gave rise to labor unions, which have been very powerful and influential within the region up until today. The long history of strikes and protests has eventually resulted in good working conditions for the dockworkers.

Recently, developments such as digitalization, automatization and the proliferation of renewable energy have profoundly impacted the nature of the work of traditional dockworkers (Hollen et al., 2015). In the backdrop of these developments and the derived necessity to create a flexible regional workforce that is ‘fit for the future’, cross-sectoral partnerships such as Rotterdam Initiative of Social Innovation (RISI) and Rotterdam Works were established. These regional cross-sectoral partnerships were both initiated in an effort to move from a traditional focus on strict job security policies, which had been in place in the region for a long time, towards a focus on sustainable employability policies. Job security is about the extent to which a person will keep the job. In contrast, sustainable employability is about the extent to which employees can work in a productive, motivated and healthy way, but not necessarily at the same employer. Sustainable employability is an important policy to guarantee long term employment, as it enhances the certainty to find work and to develop oneself in the labor market over time. RISI and Rotterdam Works operate in a highly fragmented and pluralistic region that is characterized by the longstanding coexistence of multiple demands. For this reason, both RISI and Rotterdam Works had to deal with the multiple and fragmented objectives of various actors.

We slowly but steadily see a change going on in the Rotterdam port region. First of all, HR policies in the Rotterdam port region have been transformed and unified around labor mobility ideas, which were controversial in the beginning of the 20th century and which are now commonly shared and taken for granted by numerous organizations in the region. The HR field has increasingly gained more recognition as an important field in the region. Society has broadly acknowledged the necessity of developing a workforce that is fit for the future. Similarly, the actors find it important to position HR-issues as a collaborative effort rather than as a competing factor in the region. This new orientation is accepted and enacted by several organizations (both commercial and social organizations) who increasingly see employees as a source of expertise and a driving force for business success. As a result, a growing extent of employee empowerment can be observed within organizations in the Rotterdam port region. Over time, the Rotterdam port region has increasingly distanced itself from the traditional job security policy to adopt ‘sustainable employability’ as a new labor policy, which has become more visible within the public debate.

For the Fourth Industrial Revolution to result in positive outcomes for the employees inside and outside the Rotterdam port region, a collective effort for bundling investments and commitment in education, regional reskilling and upskilling plans at every stage of development is paramount. However, this requires cooperation and synergy between the (local) government, port-firms, labor unions, educational institutes and the Port Authority. In this way, collaboration provides organizations, small or large, young or matured, with an opportunity not only to be involved in the development of novel institutional environments, but also to have an influence on the direction of that development. By choosing this approach, I am convinced that this approach contributes to the resilience of the current and future employees in the region.

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