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Ed Oskam, architect of De Harde Leerschool and winner of the Unica Innovation Challenge 2022

‘We help (young) adults who have hit obstacles in their life to find a new job in engineering’

Stichting De Harde Leerschool has developed an intervention that helps (young) adults who have hit obstacles in their life to regain self-reliance and to make them fit for a job and a life in society.

Discipline and camaraderie

De Harde Leerschool was founded in 2015 along the lines of an English example. In London, former rugby players had achieved excellent results with their ‘School of Hard Knocks’. At De Harde Leerschool, too, the core values of the sport of rugby are the central focus: respect, discipline, cooperation, resilience, physical and mental strength. Participants in the programme are accompanied by experienced trainer coaches, many of them schoolteachers, (former) rugby players and (former) commandos. The commando instructors Ray Klaassen and Dai Carter, known in the Netherlands from the TV programme Kamp van Koningsbrugge, are among the foundation’s ambassadors. The discipline and camaraderie so characteristic of commando troops are reflected at De Harde Leerschool. And just like in England, the results in the Netherlands are positive. To date, the programme has realised 38 interventions. Of the more than 500 candidates who have so far participated in De Harde Leerschool, more than half have found employment or returned to school after completing the training.

Talent development

Ed Oskam is a former commando, former rugby coach and architect of the training model at De Harde Leerschool. “After I retired as a captain in the Commando Corps, I felt the need to help vulnerable people, distanced from the labour market,” he explains. “I came into contact with young people with a criminal record, debts and psychological problems. With well-educated holders of residence permits, who despite their best efforts were unable to find employment in the Netherlands at their level of development. And with successful businessmen who had lost everything – family, home, job and friends – as a result of drug addiction. I took these people for long walks and cycle rides to get to know them better. During our discussions, I often heard the words ‘hopeless case’, ‘without prospects’ and ‘written off’. I thought to myself, this can’t be true? Because even if in the past you were lazy, a career criminal or a notorious latecomer, every person has their shortcomings as well as talents and dreams. It is my firm belief that that is where our focus should be placed. Our programme is therefore not based on the past, but on the present and the future of the candidates.”

‘Winning this prize is a recognition for all our hard work and at the same time feels like a new adventure.”

Ed Oskam, architect of De Harde Leerschool and winner of the Unica Innovation Challenge 2022

Job market

The programme at De Harde Leerschool lasts ten weeks, during which time the candidates are required to put hard work into developing themselves in a safe environment. Ed explains, “We usually start the day with exercise – some form of rugby, walking or some other outdoor activity. In the afternoon the candidates follow the teaching programme ‘Op eigen kracht’ (‘By your own effort’) which results in a personal development plan. At the end of the programme, we organise a job market. Employers come to us, to present their company. We have found that this works much better than sending the candidates to a job interview. During the day, employers can take in the atmosphere, network and talk with the potential new employees. The candidates first visit the hairdresser – and sometimes the dentist – and are all provided with smart clothes. In the past, these were the people that everyone avoided on the street, whereas now they suddenly find themselves in conversation with sometimes three or four interested employers. It is wonderful to see! We are not always immediately successful in finding employment for everyone. Some financial, addiction or behavioural problems need to be dealt with first. But even then the candidates remain members of our ‘brotherhood’, and keep attending our contact days and return days.”

New adventure

Ed is proud – and still somewhat overwhelmed – that De Harde Leerschool won the Unica Innovation Challenge 2022. “I was on holiday when I heard that Unica was looking for innovative ideas that could be effectively put into practice in an attempt to tackle the shortages on the labour market. I called Dirk Danen (former rugby professional and captain of the Dutch National rugby team and since 2023 director of De Harde Leerschool – ed.) and he said without hesitation: let’s do it! So I started work on our submission, right away. Our expectations were low, but in October we heard that we had been selected for the final! Dirk and I both have the gift of the gab, and our training is a recognised intervention, but even so, presenting our programme to the jury was more than a little daunting. You can imagine our surprise when we heard that we had won. It left me feeling emotional, and I had to wipe away a few tears. It is a recognition for all our hard work and at the same time feels like a new adventure.”

Investment budget

De Harde Leerschool and Unica are working together to discuss how the prize money from the Unica Innovation Challenge can best be spent. “There is an urgent need to put the engineering and technology sector more in the spotlight. And of course we would love the candidates in our programme to successfully find employment at Unica,” concludes Ed, who has every confidence in the collaboration. “Unica is a large and successful company with a clear human focus. And that is what it is all about.”