Home and away: Inge Hooijen and colleagues take a look at Limburg, its labour market and its natives and newcomers

Home to the Maastricht Treaty that founded the European Union, and sharing the Meuse-Rhine Euregion with German and Belgian neighbours who are just a border-hop away, Limburg is famously “at the heart of Europe”. However, the Netherlands’ southernmost province is also a culturally, linguistically and geographically distinct place whose inhabitants are “incredibly proud” of their region, according to Inge Hooijen (pictured), a doctoral candidate at Maastricht University’s Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market. So does Limburg look outward or inward? And what does that mean for its labour market of the future?

Hooijen studies regional migration and the mobility behaviour of highly educated people, and is currently focusing on Limburg and Euregional case studies of recent graduates and technically skilled workers. A native of the province who undertook master’s studies in Catalonia and then returned home, she knows a lot about “the attraction of Limburg” – which was the title of a lecture she and her research partner, Julia Reinold of UNU-MERIT and the Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility (ITEM), gave at the recent Limburgse Arbeidsmarktdag 2018 in Roermond.

Along with contributions from ROA colleagues Rolf van der Velden, Didier Fouarge and Raymond Montizaan, Hooijen and Reinold shared initial results of their research with the Limburgse Arbeidsmarktdag audience. They discussed Limburg’s demography, its growing demand for a highly educated workforce, and the counter-intuitive reality that Limburgers and their Euregion cousins rarely look across nearby borders for new jobs or new homes – even though to people from further afield, the dividing lines between Limburg, Belgium and Germany may seem practically invisible.

Hooijen says of the recent event: “Julia and I gave a demographic overview of the region to the Limburgse Arbeidsmarktdag attendees, and presented initial results of our research and some studies we co-authored with ROA colleagues. Limburg’s economy is growing, and it needs to attract and retain highly skilled people. And that’s exactly what our research is all about,” she says.

“Limburg’s economy is growing, and it needs to attract and retain highly skilled people. And that’s exactly what our research is all about” 

“People between 20 and 30 years old are society’s most spatially mobile group on average, and highly educated individuals tend to be the most mobile of all. Perhaps counter to what people might assume, though, our preliminary results show relatively low graduate mobility among people in the Euregion’s different sub-regions.

“For example, more than 50% of Maastricht University’s students are international, and Germans are the biggest part of that group. But most German graduates end up living and working somewhere in Germany. When we enriched our data with some 50 interviews with Euregion graduates, we found many of them never even think about working across the border, whereas students from outside Europe don’t really consider the region to have any borders at all.”

“While many non-EU students don’t consider the region to have borders at all, one Euregion graduate said: ‘I never even considered the possibility of looking across the border for work’”

A 25-year-old woman from Limburg told the researchers: “I think most people prefer to stay living in their own country, and they see ‘just across the border’ as being abroad.” That view isn’t confined to Limburgers, it seems, but is common across the Euregion: a 24-year-old Belgian woman who studied in Hasselt said she would “rather commute to work than to commute to my family and friends” and wasn’t surprised that most Dutch students on her course returned to the Netherlands. “Of course because of family reasons, they move back to the source,” she said, adding that she didn’t know many people who decided to study/live/work across the border: “Now you ask me, I realise that I never even considered the possibility”. 

Hooijen adds: “Non-EU international students often see things differently. A 33-year-old Indian who studied in Aachen said he often went to Belgium or the Netherlands in his free time and added, ‘I think it’s normal; it’s so close.’ And a 38-year-old Palestinian woman said: ‘We internationals don’t feel the distinction between the three countries. I often went shopping in Maastricht, and never really noticed I was in another country. Europe is the same for me.’

“It seems that it’s the differences in languages, culture and legislation that hold back people born in the Euregion from moving from Limburg to Germany or Belgium, or vice versa, for work,” Hooijen observes. “If we want to stimulate cross-border mobility, institutions such as Maastricht University need to inform students about career opportunities across the border, very early on in their studies.”

“Maastricht University needs to inform students about career opportunities across the border, very early on in their studies”

What would make a Limburger more likely to look further afield for a new job or a new home?

“In research Julia and I carried out with Christoph Meng, the first findings indicate that people’s familiarity with a region, their previous experiences of mobility, changes in their relationship status and their individual personalities have an influence,” says Hooijen.

“Some early findings show that of the people who previously intended remain in the region after completing their studies, those who experience unexpected life events – such as a broken heart or finding new love – are more likely to change their mind and move away. People who were born in the region and were still living there at age 16 are more likely to stay; conversely, previous experience of mobility seems to be a good predictor for future mobility. Our findings emphasise that strategies to attract and retain recent graduates need to go beyond merely economic approaches,” she says.

“Who is most likely to be mobile? People with previous experience of mobility – and those with a broken heart or a new love”

In a study of recent graduates of Dutch universities of applied sciences that Hooijen is conducting with Ineke Bijlsma, Frank Cörvers and Davey Poulissen, natives of Limburg are the least likely, along with people from the province of Zeeland, to move to another part of the Netherlands to live – only about 12% of them do so. Although this cohort tend to be less mobile overall than graduates of research universities such as UM, the findings nevertheless point to a characteristic of the province.

What do these factors mean for the Limburg of the future?

“After many years in which Limburg’s population declined, it grew by 3.5% last year,” Hooijen says. “But this was the result of inward migration, reflecting the arrival of people such as Eastern Europeans, academics who come to work at Maastricht University, refugees and asylum seekers. In Limburg, mortality rates exceed fertility rates and women have just 1.5 children on average. It’s a greying society; more than 50% of the population is 45 or over and just 19% is aged 20 or under.”

“Limburg is a greying society; although the population rose by 3.5% last year after many years of decline, that was the result of inward migration”

Hooijen adds: “Interestingly, there are quite large differences among the municipalities in Limburg in terms of demographics: some are growing, and others are shrinking. It could be valuable to take a closer look at why some municipalities are getting bigger and others aren’t, and who decides to move to or leave a particular place. When you put a lens on population growth by municipality, urban areas are not as popular as you might think. In 2016, non-urban areas such as Vaals and Eijsden-Margraten grew by more than 7%, whereas Maastricht only grew by 1.8%.”

Looking ahead, argues Hooijen, “Limburg’s ability to attract people from across the nearby borders, from further afield, and from different Dutch regions, is going to be key to filling the needs of the labour market and the knowledge economy.

“And it’s important to remember that the story of migrants coming to Limburg is not a new one. In fact, the province has a long migration history, especially in Parkstad and Sittard-Geleen, where the demand for mine workers was very high before the mines closed in 1965,” she notes.

“The story of migrants coming to Limburg is not a new one, and I hope Limburgers remain willing to share their gezelligheid with newcomers” 

“The general image of the Limburgers is that they are incredibly proud of their province, of their dialect, their Carnaval traditions and their landscape, all of which play a part in their unique identity. The social networks are very broad here, especially in the less urban areas, so I hope Limburgers remain willing to share their gezelligheid with newcomers.

“After all,” Hooijen says, “how people feel about life in a new place isn’t just about the job, but the social environment around them.”

Read a summary of Inge Hooijen and Julia Reinold’s Limburgse Arbeidsmarktdag 2018 presentation
Read more about Rolf van der Velden’s presentation
Read more about Raymond Montizaan’s presentation