Hoppenbrouwers © Wesley Klop
Author profile picture

With Tilburg University at its heart, Central Brabant should be a knowledge region of note. The opposite is true. The connection between academia and the local business community lags, and academics who graduate from the university do not infrequently make the trek to the Randstad. But the tide seems to be turning. The third story of a series on the university region of Tilburg.

It is cold in the warehouse of Melis Gieterijen in Tilburg-Noord. In the company’s large hall, dozens of men are constantly preparing and filling sand molds and dies. These will soon roll industrial castings for various sectors in the manufacturing industry. Products for trains and large machines, for example. Although the company has more work to its credit than that; previously they cast various monuments for Tilburg’s city center and countless products for the Efteling, among other things.

Lucca Kluijtmans © Rens van de Plas

It’s not necessarily an environment where you would expect an academic. And yet Lucca Kluijtmans, now a master’s student in organizational studies at Tilburg University, has joined Castlab. The five-year-old start-up, which grew out of Melis’ metal foundry, plans to dramatically change the world of metal casting. “The warehouse back here is full of models and molds from newspapers, but we don’t think that’s of our time anymore,” Kluijtmans says.

Castlab, therefore, wants to take a different approach. “We make a digital version of our customers’ products. We then make a negative of that, so you get a mold of the design. And from that, we make the cast-ready drawing that we can then 3D print in the sand,” Kluijtmans explains. “That makes it possible to produce low numbers practically, quickly, and at a relatively low cost. And we collect the digital drawings in a digital warehouse so customers no longer need physical stock for their models and molds.”

Little common ground

Kluijtmans ended up at Castlab after deciding that his thesis should be about reshoring: bringing foreign business operations back to the Netherlands. “In the beginning, I was working four days a week and working on my thesis one day a week. I did a lot of different work during that time, from strategic decisions to human resources and finance, you get involved in all that. After only two weeks, I was already among the directors of the manufacturing companies of Brainport Industries. I was, so to speak, the intern who had never had anything to do with the manufacturing industry,” he laughs.

Kluijtmans is quite happy in the family business. Still, he is the exception to the rule. Tilburg University students rarely end up at companies in the region. They are usually prepared for careers at large multinationals, ministries in The Hague, or law firms on the Zuidas. Although Tilburg University offers a master’s program in Supply Chain Management and also has programs in human resources and business management, the match between Tilburg University’s educational offerings and the region is not great. The fact that the area is mostly home to many SMEs does not help to attract academic talent to the region.

Limited local connection

Loet Pessers, who works as branch manager at installation company Hoppenbrouwers Techniek in Udenhout and chairs the Smart Industry steering committee of Midpoint Brabant, also knows this. “At Hoppenbrouwers, ROC Tilburg is a bit of the purveyor of court, and our engineering department also has students from intermediate vocational and higher vocational schools, but we don’t employ academics. The local connection with the university is still fairly limited. We lack a piece of infrastructure in the region to enable academics to connect naturally with the work field.”

Pessers thinks that a factor in this is that companies in the Tilburg region do virtually no fundamental research. “Large companies in Eindhoven, for example, often have their research departments; Hoppenbrouwers and other SMEs in the region often don’t. The university does have a supply of students, but employers have not yet realized that supply and do not yet know how to use academics within their companies.”

Large headquarters

Sandra Smits, operations director of transport company Kivits Drunen in Waalwijk, also sees this. Smits chairs Midpoint Brabant’s Smart Logistics steering committee. “The image of our sector is pretty lousy among academics. We did organize a Day of Logistics before the corona era. In the past, there were only trucks lined up there, one more beautiful than the other. When college students see that, they logically wonder what they can do in a company like ours. While there are large companies in the region that employ econometricians, for example,” Smits says.

That the connection between university and business sometimes leaves something to be desired may have to do with the field of work, which has changed dramatically in recent years, thinks Ton Wilthagen. He is a professor of Institutional and Legal Aspects of the Labor Market at Tilburg University. “The university has a strong faculty around finance, business, and management, but Tilburg doesn’t have any big financial institutions. Some students say, ‘It would be nice if there were an institution like the Tax Office here.’ But the Tax Office has left for Eindhoven.”

Kivits Drunen © Wesley Klop

Large institutions or headquarters have never characterized this city anyway, Wilthagen says. “Companies like ING, KPN, and Deloitte have always been in the Randstad. Tilburg University trains a lot of students who want to work at those kinds of big companies, so they don’t stay in Tilburg. It’s not like we have a Rabobank headquarters here where all economics students can flow naturally to. Similarly, some studies assumed that banks or insurance companies had regional offices everywhere. That is no longer the case now. But a company like Interpolis is still a big player here. A lot of our alumni work there.”

According to Wilthagen, however, a turning point has been reached. He sees more and more Tilburg University students turning away from the Zuidas. “Those students then work at an accounting or law firm and then say, ‘I sit there every night until ten o’clock and I don’t find it that interesting at all.’ Students may have the idea that they are babysitting money from Putin or anyone else. That’s not their ambition. The idea that the corporate is beatific has become a lot more nuanced with the new generation.”

Work smarter

Meanwhile, employers are pushing to make Central Brabant attractive to academic students. Smits sees plenty of opportunities for that. “We need to show them not those trucks, but especially the digital processes and the way things are planned. We need analysts in our industry to make our processes run more efficiently. And people graduating from university are ideally suited for that,” Smits said. “As a region, we don’t want to be able to work more, but smarter. Meanwhile, you also need more and more intelligence within your company.”

Smits also thinks Tilburg needs to become more attractive as a city to keep graduates there. “There should be enough housing and facilities, the government should also pay attention to that. If you need additional housing now, it takes three years to make sure the plans get to The Hague and then it has to be implemented. That doesn’t always feel comfortable for entrepreneurs,” Smits believes. “Those prefer to decide today and implement tomorrow. But we talk to each other about it and we make sure we are heard.”

Meanwhile, the municipality, educational institutions, and entrepreneurs are also working together on a few living labs, Pessers said. “There we are investigating how to make that connection between the university and the companies in this region. For a metal company, there aren’t going to be more welders on the market. That company will have to make do with the people that are there. That means you have to organize the work more smartly, and technologies, which they are already quite advanced with at Tilburg University, can help with that.”

These living labs do need government guidance and funding, Pessers believes. “Eighty percent of this region consists of companies with less than 20 employees. They often do not have the capital and people to participate in these kinds of living labs. But smaller companies are certainly participating. With these living labs, we especially hope to show companies in this region how they can use the knowledge of a university in their own company.”

Making it visible

That university knowledge is only going to become more relevant to the field, Pessers believes. “We are moving more and more toward a business world that is committed to producing and processing data. Many companies will have to do something with digitization in one way or another in the coming years. That is where I think the university can add a lot of value because that is the next step that nobody knows about yet. The region needs to get into that. If companies don’t make steps now, they have to ask themselves where they will still be in twenty years.”

Wilthagen also thinks SMEs should be made more visible to students. As a city professor, he is working with the city council on proposals to make that happen. “I personally think you can absolutely interest students in a career in SMEs, but you have to make it transparent. I notice that a lot of students don’t necessarily feel like working at the same company for a long time. So in the near future, I will work with the city on an idea for “career paths. One small SME may not be able to hire a technical specialist, but four small SMEs together may be able to. We need to start looking at SMEs in new ways and bring SMEs to the attention of students in new ways.”

The fact that students can also be attracted to SMEs is best demonstrated by Kluijtmans’ story. “Some people are already very sure that they want to become consultants and that they want to work at a certain company. Those already have a whole plan mapped out for themselves. But if you, as a student, are not yet completely sure what you want to do and also want to learn a lot of things, I would look around closer to home. You immediately get a lot of opportunities and responsibilities and learn to discover a little bit of the entrepreneur in yourself. That is also very nice,” he concludes.

This series also appears in Brabants Dagblad and was created with support from the Tilburg Media Fund.