Brexit: “Enough skilled colleagues will be on standby soon”

With a view to Brexit, Dutch Customs has taken on hundreds of new employees in a short space of time. The service is testing an innovative training concept to quickly train all of them as Customs officers.

The anticipated extra work resulting from the UK’s departure from the EU has forced Dutch Customs to take on hundreds of new employees. Recruiting, selecting and training all these candidates in a short period of time – a process that is still ongoing – is a real tour de force. To prepare them for their specific work at the border, Customs is testing the innovative concept of task-based training. “This fresh approach means that our new colleagues will be well prepared for their task.”

“In the early spring of 2018, Brexit was of course high on the agenda of our organisation’s top management,” says Janneke Jong (right in the photo), human resource development policy advisor at Customs. “Our service was faced with an unprecedented task: a staff increase of no less than 20% had to be achieved under enormous pressure of time. Monitoring the flow of goods between the United Kingdom and the Dutch mainland called for almost 930 new employees, 300 of whom had to be ready for duty by 29 March of this year. How could we properly train this mass intake? It was clear that the traditional method wouldn’t do: it was too time-consuming.”

As it happened, Jong had been working for some time on what many regarded as a necessary new vision on teaching and development within Customs. “An important element of this review is task-based training, where the learning pathway is tailored to the activities that the trainee is actually going to carry out. The emphasis is no longer on acquiring a great deal of very broad theoretical knowledge, but on training practical skills that are important within a clearly defined work process. I was convinced that this different approach to our teaching methods could help to solve the Brexit problem. Once we had presented this vision at the Customs MT, our directors also became enthusiastic. They gave us the opportunity to start a pilot in this area, a decision that was fully embraced by our employee representatives. That actually made Brexit a catalyst; it has accelerated the introduction of task-based training here.”

‘Ready to go’
“The pilot was completely in line with the original Brexit deadline,” says Brexit Training Coordinator Daniella van Iterson (left in the photo). “We started with three task-based training courses for prospective C-employees – our colleagues who are closely involved in the operational aspects; the people we particularly need in the context of Brexit. The focus was on the three customs processes where we expected the most bottlenecks: Passengers at Schiphol Airport, ferries in the Port of Rotterdam and Customs clearance – the handling of transport documents. The aim was to ensure that all trainee customs officers on these learning paths would be ‘ready to start work’ on 29 March 2019. By this we mean that they are already largely able to carry out their clearly defined tasks independently at the border.”

“This meant, for example, that an employee at Schiphol could carry out a luggage check and would know what to do if he found a pair of snakeskin boots or illegal medicines in a suitcase,” Jong adds. “And that he can settle the matter administratively or knows that he needs to call in a more experienced colleague. Or that an employee at a ferry terminal has knowledge of the flow of documents relating to goods and has learned how to deal with something like an ATA carnet. We expect that a lot of physical transport documents will still be used in the roll-on/roll-off flow, and we know that they are by no means always filled in correctly and completely.”

Lifelong learning
“All in all, we’re moving from a long-term, generalist and knowledge-intensive training model to more compact, specialist and practice-oriented modules,” says Van Iterson. “We want to move towards a basic portfolio for both the C and E and F programmes, with additional blocks – a stackable curriculum that gives people skills in various fields. There is a general introductory programme for everyone – in which people are introduced to Customs in general – and an introduction to professional skills. E and F trainees are then given a more in-depth section, which is specifically tailored to their tasks and activities. After that the new staff members go to the region for a few months of learning on the job. If people move to a different process after some years, they are given further training in this area. This approach – which always focuses on the current need for knowledge – fits in perfectly with modern views on lifelong learning. In the past, Customs entrants were immersed in detailed teaching material for many months and even years. A large part of it was forgotten over time, simply because the matter did not arise in anyone’s actual work. In fact, much of that effort went to waste. We’re now trying to bring training and practice closer together by looking at what someone really needs to know to do their job. We want to ensure that the fresh workers who come into the region are already largely ready to do their jobs.”

Strong guidance
Task-based training relies heavily on the ‘70/20/10 principle’, which has become a standard in the world of education in recent years. The idea is that people learn 10% from education in a formal setting – a training programme or course – 20% of what they get back from their environment – in the form of feedback, for example – and 70% from their everyday experiences. “That’s why learning on the job is an important aspect of the programme,” explains Jong. “Trainee customs officers spend a lot of time working on the shop floor because this enables them to attain the desired level more quickly. For our task-based training courses, we’ve set up an extensive support structure in which current employees play a key role. Each student is supported by an experienced practical supervisor and a mentor who transfer a lot of their knowledge and skills as they go along. This whole process is in turn under the supervision of the team leader. All in all, this model requires a relatively high level of capacity on the part of the customs regions, especially in view of the mass recruitment that we are now experiencing. After Brexit, it won’t be any different: the oncoming exodus of many older colleagues means that our department will continue to recruit staff on a large scale in the coming years.”

Boost for professional skills
“The combination of learning and working has proven to be a pleasant and motivating experience for all concerned,” says Jong. “For the newcomers it’s much more satisfying to get started quickly than to spend a long time at school. And we often see seasoned colleagues flourish in their role as supervisors; they like to pass on their expertise to an upcoming group of people. Conversely, they can learn a lot from the students they train – they are generally a lot younger, and often have better computer skills, for example.”

“That creates a synergy that really boosts professional skills at our department across the board,” concludes Van Iterson. “All in all, I think we’ll be training top professionals, which will give Customs a great deal of benefit – when Brexit arrives, and for a long time after.”

Evaluation to follow
The new customs officers recruited in the context of Brexit joined in groups of about 150. Some of them are trained according to the principles of task-based training. This process is still ongoing. The new training concept is now being evaluated in phases; the final evaluation will follow in the spring of 2020. Customs top management will decide whether it should be introduced more widely within the service.
Mega operation
The redesign of the Customs educational system and the introduction of task-based training is an extensive and complex process in which several parties work closely together. Educational experts from the Tax and Customs Administration Academy (the group’s educational institute) approve the form and content of lesson programmes, the customs regions indicate their wishes and welcome new employees, Janneke Jong and Daniella van Iterson coordinate and monitor the frameworks from the National Office and the Customs National Service Organisation supports the implementation. “We’re really working on something fundamentally new,” explains Van Iterson. “A lot is changing, so we regularly do things differently from the usual procedure. For example, we’re adding subjects to the curriculum that we didn’t have before, and for which we need to develop other learning resources and find additional instructors. We’re also considering an alternative way of testing, because we’ll now also be assessing course members in practical situations. And there’s still plenty to talk about with our top management and the Works Council. Fortunately, both of them are giving us every opportunity to get off to a good start with this new educational concept.”

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