Home ➾ Blog ➾ Leisure education faces challenges and opportunities in 2024

Leisure education faces challenges and opportunities in 2024

Marco Louters Auteur

Marco Louters

December 20, 2023 | 14 minute read

Interactieve les in een mbo klaslokaal met focus op recreatie, hospitality en leisure, symbolisch voor de uitdagingen en kansen in 2024.
Marco Louters Auteur

Marco Louters

December 20, 2023 | 14 minute read

MBO studies are facing a challenge with less and less students opting for leisure education programs. The image of the recreation industry is not favorable, requiring both the industry and the education programs to take steps to sustain future interest.

Earlier this year, I mapped out the hospitality and recreation market. I thought it would be good to compile the events since the coronavirus into a clear overview. A lot has happened. It’s been a real rollercoaster. That’s why I was curious about the state of the industry in 2023.

One observation that struck me was the declining intake of new MBO students in recreation. This has apparently been decreasing for years.

And this while the still growing recreation sector is struggling with a huge shortage of staff. Two-thirds of recreation companies in the Netherlands do not have enough workers.

Consider me intrigued. πŸ€—

Partly because I studied Recreation myself, I was interested to dive into this. What exactly is going on?

I spoke with Margreet Toonen, director of tourism, leisure & marketing at De Rooi Pannen in Breda. The discussion points will be interwoven with recent research and figures throughout this blog.

We are talking about the Dutch concept of MBO schools, which could either translate to Secondary Vocational Education or to Vocational Education and Training (VET). The concept is not known in every other country.

1. Overall status of the Dutch MBO

Shrinkage, decline, reduction πŸ“‰

The MBO player base is shrinking. This is happening at all levels and on two sides; more outflow and less inflow.

The decline in perspective πŸ”Ž

Let’s begin to put the downward trend in perspective with other years. The current decline started in 2020. The five years before that we saw a slight growth, which came after an even firmer decline since 2010.

Grafiek die de trend in het aantal middelbaar beroepsonderwijs studenten laat zien

The number of MBO students since 2010. (In making this chart, I used the total overview since 1900 from CBS. The figures cited by various organisations, reports and articles vary somewhat from each other. It is not always clear how they came about. However, the trend is the same everywhere.)

De-growth πŸ‘ΆπŸ‘΅πŸ‘΅

A macro trend contributing to this is de-growth, the process by which the proportion of young people in the population declines. This often occurs through a combination of declining birth rates and an increase in life expectancy.

On the graph below, the trend is clearly visible.

Grafiek toont aantal geboren kinderen tussen 1900 en 2022

Source: CBS 2023. Number of children born alive.

A new decline has been underway since 2000, which also means that schools will drop in numbers.

Because students start at MBO schools around age 16, the brief spike in births around 2000 may explain – in part – the growth in students starting in 2016, but then it is extraordinary that this has continued through 2020.

What cannot be ignored, however, is that the decline in population growth will have an impact on the number of students.

Students choose higher education πŸ“Š

Higher education is popular. Looking at the graph below, we see the percentage of students in MBO (blue) decreasing and growing in higher (orange) and scientific education (grey).

Grafiek die de verdeling aangeeft tussen mbo, hbo en wo studenten.

The distribution between MBO, higher education, and scientific education (based on the total overview since 1900 from CBS). The growth in higher and scientific education is also related to more international students.

Part of that growth is due to the popularity of Dutch universities among international students. In the 2022/’23 academic year, 15% of all students were international. In particular, they are choosing higher and scientific studies.

Of all higher education students, 7.5% were international. At scientific studies, the percentage was 25.1%.

This growth has began in recent years. (Nuffic) We can also see this in the graph below, showing the total number of students in the Netherlands. A substantial growth, while births are falling.

Een grafiek die het totaal aantal studenten in Nederland laat zien

The total number of students in the Netherlands (based on the total overview since 1900 from CBS). The recent increase is also related to the large growth in international students.

Universities popular among VMBO students πŸš€

When we look at the choices made by VMBO students (generally the class before MBO), we see that MBO has become less popular. They prefer to continue their studies – to go to a university later – instead of entering a MBO school now.

“The MBO schools are seen as a kind of second-class education,” Margreet Toonen said in our conversation. “A lot of students are also not at all proud of themselves when they are in MBO. That’s our big challenge: to get students to be proud of themselves.” Translated from Dutch.

It also didn’t help that, even by law, MBO students were not actually considered students, but ‘participants’. That not only impacted how MBO students were viewed in society, but they were also denied things that other students did have access to, such as student discounts, student weeks, access to bars, and student sports centers. (NOS)

That has only changed since the 2020/’21 academic year. “Now our students are also called students.” Margreet then pointed out Minister Dijkgraaf’s action. “He has done a lot of good for the MBO in the past year; even sent a letter to all the schools during the final choice processes: ‘Also think off the MBO.'” Translated from Dutch.

Deans and parents major influence πŸ‘©β€πŸ« πŸ‘¨β€πŸ‘¦

That progression is also in the hands of deans. But guidance from VMBO to MBO is poor.

There are concerns that schools mainly focus on keeping students within their own walls, and their study progress and performance. The continuation after VMBO lags behind, while pupils have to be quick in their choice. If they want to study at MBO next school year, they must apply by March 30. (Onderwijskennis)Β 

Another important link in the choice process are parents. They play a very large role. Over three-quarters of parents feel involved and also are involved by the child itself. This percentage decreases steadily as children become older. (Motivaction)

Parental preferences for certain professions play a conscious or unconscious role. (C3)

HBR profile without R πŸ₯£πŸž

At the end of their second year, vmbo students can choose from ten profiles, which aim to give students a good foundation for further education. Starting in the third year, they then follow subjects that belong to these. (De VO Gids)

One of the available profiles is HBR, which stands for Hospitality, Bakery, and Recreation. “And the ‘R’ of ‘HBR’ plays no role at all. So VMBO students also don’t come in contact with recreation at all,” says Margreet. Translated from Dutch.

Research by Markteffect among MBO recreation students also shows that the HBR profile played a very small role in making the choice.Β (Markteffect)

Graph showing who and what influenced the choice to study recreation.

Source: Markteffect 2022. Overview of who or what played a role in making the study choice of recreation.

Margreet also mentions that people – who influence the choice of VMBO students – have a much greater focus on other sectors: “What do you have to choose these days? According to everyone, you have to do something with healthcare, ICT, or construction. And not leisure and tourism. Healthcare, ICT, and construction. Those are really the three studies promoted by everyone.” Translated from Dutch.

That plays a role.

2. Challenges for MBO Recreation

Acceleration due to corona 🩺

In addition to the declining trend evident across the entire MBO level, it is noteworthy that the decline is even greater in studies that fall under tourism & recreation, hospitality & bakery, and economics & administration. The latter also includes marketing, communication, and events.Β (Inspectie van het Onderwijs)

These are sectors that were hit hard by the corona crisis and then faced staff shortages and high inflation on energy and goods.

‘Should you really choose recreation?’ Many students answered ‘no’ to that question during the corona years. Compared to 2019, there was 42% less orientation to recreation in 2020. This was even lower in 2021. (Markteffect)

The Netherlands has 30 MBO schools that offer recreation studies. They have noticed for years that the influx of new recreation students lags behind. “That is turning schools across the country upside down,” Margreet confirmed. “More and more schools are discontinuing Leisure.” Translated from Dutch.

The image of recreation πŸ’™

The image of the recreation industry is not good.

This is also confirmed by industry organizations such as FNV Recreatie, KIKK-Recreatie, and HISWA-RECRON, which have joined forces to commission a study into the image of the leisure field.

Geert Dijks, director HISWA-RECRON said in 2022: “The recreation sector needs to put themselves better on the map. Our members – think campsites, vacation parks, and outdoor sports companies – need to be prouder and communicate that more. We need to give our image a big boost. Together with members and schools, we are going to work hard on this.” Translated from Dutch. (FNV Recreatie)

Although 81% of staff in the recreation work field say they enjoy the work they do, they would not be quick to recommend the industry to others.

A low base salary, inadequate working conditions and a high workload are at the heart of dissatisfaction among current employees, who also face few opportunities for promotion.

In particular, higher salaries in other industries (56%) and excessive work pressure (40%) are the main reasons for 18% of employees to leave the sector within now and two years. (Markteffect)

Entertainment and working with children 🎨

Many new students associate a job in the recreation industry primarily with animation work and dealing with children. This perspective, although limited, arises from the visible aspects of the recreation track. (HISWA-RECRON)

First of all, these are precisely the subjects that are being examined, due to restrictions imposed by the didactic qualification file (more on this later). In addition – and perhaps also because of this – one does not really know what other functions and career opportunities are available. And finally, students in the work field often – perhaps also because of this – do not get beyond entertainment work or working in the front office.

And that has a direct link with seasonality. “People see it as a vacation job, not always as a profession,” Margreet Toonen observes. “The courses were also always very focused on ‘in the summer’ after all. What was a Leisure education even? A bit of entertainment, making activity programs, and running activity programs.”

“Well, then indeed all those parents said, ‘So what does my child do in the winter?’ – yes, nothing at all,” explained Toonen. “That’s why at De Rooi Pannen we turned the whole program around, to make a nice program for Leisure and train all-round employees, who also know something about marketing, about finance, about entrepreneurship, to make sure that at least we are no longer involved in that. If you’re on an entertainment team in the summer, you can do finance or marketing in the winter. So we teach students that, too.” Translated from Dutch.

But the image is there. People don’t easily think of Recreation beyond walking around as a camping clown, face painting children, and doing a dance here and there. And if you look at the didactic qualification file, that’s true.

Limitations by the didactic qualification file πŸ“‘

Margreet Toonen is unapologetic about the limitations of the didactic qualifications file: “In higher education land, we were allowed to do our god-aweful best to build a beautiful education, but in MBO land, you are always linked to a qualification file.” Translated from Dutch.

A didactic qualification file describes the competencies and learning objectives students must achieve in their vocational training. It serves as an official standard for what students must know and be able to do at the end of their education. So that is what schools must certify on.

“So what is Leisure’s qualification file about?” Margreet links this to my old study. “Well, that will be exactly the same dossier you had 100 years ago! Hospitality… animation programs… underpinning that financially… a bit of leadership… That’s about it. That just doens’t amount to anything at all. That’s just a really thin program. I don’t think you want to offer an MBO student that, such a thin program.” Translated from Dutch.

The additional skills in which De Rooi Pannen wants to train students, outside of the qualification file, they are allowed to test but not examine. Students take exams in creating activity programs and receiving guests.

Many other MBO schools across the country only offer the old profile.

“And so they haven’t woken up yet… That if you do start making a broader profile, that you will get more students. Because people no longer come for an activity program. Come on! So yeah, honestly, the schools have kind of killed themselves too.” Translated from Dutch.

However, a new qualification file is currently being worked on. That responsibility lies with the Samenwerkingsorganisatie Beroepsonderwijs Bedrijfsleven (SBB), together with people from the field and the schools.

But Toonen does not see that going smoothly yet either. “A lot of schools prefer to keep the old as much as possible… and not embrace the new.” Translated from Dutch.

Employment prospects Leisure: moderate? 😐

Then there is the National Occupations Guide, which lists on their website what the job market outlook is for different sectors. Leisure is listed as ‘moderate’.

“Yeah, that makes no sense at all,” Toonen responds. “But they keep insisting it’s moderate. So if students were to look there – which quite a few do – you get ‘moderate job prospects’, while the industry is really facing a serious, a serious, staff shortage.” Translated from Dutch.

3. Opportunities for MBO Recreation

Positive feelings πŸ₯°

Is everything bleak then? Not at all. The recreation field is a wonderful industry to work in.

Most students say they enjoy working with people and making people happy.Β (HISWA-RECRON) More than half have a (very) positive outlook on the future of the industry, and also about half expect to probably or definitely work in the sector after their studies (30% choose to continue studying).

The majority of associations with the recreation sector are positive (75%). Words that come to mind for employees include: vacation, cozy, hospitality, fun, experience, happy guests, vacation atmosphere, hard work, beautiful surroundings, diverse, exercise, freedom, outdoors, being of service, and making people happy.

Illness and burnouts are relateively rare in the industry at 3%. The overall national average is 4%. (Markteffect)

Mission for the work field πŸ’β€β™€οΈ

But, there still is a job to do for companies.

Among employees, there is particular dissatisfaction with base salary, poor working conditions, high workload, and the few opportunities for advancement. Mentioned among recreation students are also the lack of advancement opportunities and deteriorating working conditions.

Meanwhile, we see employees – if staff shortages persist – improving working conditions, offering more permanent contracts (year-round), improving work-life balance, and providing more training opportunities.

So the options really are there.

Is the bad image then really necessary?

Also realize that the battle for staff will get even tougher, with the rise of large international chains. They are much better able to attract and retain staff through good secondary employment conditions.

Staff training and development should not be underestimated. This is very important for employee retention. People want to keep growing; keep developing. Some 33% of companies in the field do not offer any option. In companies with less than 20 employees, this percentage is even higher.

Staff will continue to be desperately needed. So we should not lose them to other industries. A shame if that could have been avoided.

And regarding recreation students, the HISWA-RECRON makes an appeal to the work field: “And you as an entrepreneur? You can also influence this. Do you have trainees? Then show them the diversity of the profession by introducing them to all facets within you company, which is often much more than working in an entertainment team or at the reception desk.” Translated from Dutch. (HISWA-RECRON)

Mission for the schools πŸ‘¨β€πŸ«

In the field of leisure, 42% of employees have completed a studies in Leisure & Hospitality. It almost has to be, then, that indeed employers indicate that the studies are a good fit to the positions being filled within the company.

Still, this will have to become more than just animation and front office. Schools have a great influence on what knowledge students acquire. That knowledge will have to be broadened.

The world is constantly changing. The world is accelerating.

School will have to move and innovate with it.

Also take another look at available internships. Everyone knows that internships are a big part of an MBO education. When choosing a study, students mainly look at the internships: ‘Where can I work?’ Tackle this together with employers. Design even more fun, interesting, and challenging internships.

“The industry is eager for new students and employees to help make our guests have an unforgettable time,” says Johan Bijlsma, director of FNV Recreation. “From gardeners, hospitality workers, and technical service workers, to security guards and cleaners.” Translated from Dutch. (FNV Recreatie)

Example: De Rooi Pannen 🏠

Finally, we cast a glance at De Rooi Pannen in Breda, where Margreet Toonen is working hard to innovate the recreation training programs.

Whereas a lot of schools choose to train only for campsites and bungalow parks, De Rooi Pannen wants to take a broader approach; the entire broad sector.

“We are very much into family entertainment centers, where you can work year-round. We are very much into day recreation, where you can work year-round. And we are very busy with all kinds of other forms of leisure, which are no longer seasonal,” Margreet explains. Translated from Dutch.

This puts De Rooi Pannen in a unique sitation. Before corona, they had an intake of 90 students. In the corona years it was 60 and 50, and now they are back at 90.

Practical experience is taken one step further than just external assignments and internships. On the grounds of De Rooi Pannen, there are kitchens, an event agency, and a hotel, which students have already worked in before going on internships.Β (BN DeStem)

Starting in 2024, De Rooi Pannen also plans to start the new course “E-leisure & Events,” which focuses on all technology in recreation. This of the technology in family entertainment centers, but also completely new versions of leisure. What’s happening in e-sports? Or in gaming? VR? AR? AI-driven stuff?

And? Students still graduate on the old qualification file. πŸ™ƒ

Toonen does notice interest from other MBO schools: “More and more people from MBO schools are coming to Breda for a day.” Translated from Dutch.

ℹ️ This research was 50% co-funded by the province of North Brabant.

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