Greater Flexibility, More Opportunities German Labor Leader: Continuing Education is not the Privilege of Academics

German labor wants more flexibility from businesses to help employees reach their potential - both at home and at work. Jörg Hoffmann, head of Germany's largest labor union, explains.
IG Metall Executive Jörg Hoffmann wants employers to pay for more worker training.

Don’t believe all the headlines that proclaim: “German employees are tired of working.” That’s just not true.  Workers across Germany are willing to do their jobs and be flexible.

That’s a key finding of a recent survey by IG Metall, Germany’s largest metalworkers’ union. More than 500,000 members participated and the results will help the union set goals for coming years.

The survey clearly shows that employees are willing to adjust their lives to fast-paced work requirements and show exceptional commitment.

But companies often turn the screws too tight and take advantage. For instance, they frequently expect employees to work long into the night and drop their own work to pitch in on other tasks. Many also insist that employees always be reachable by phone or email after working hours.

Constant and increasing performance pressure exacerbates the situation. Working hours can get out of hand, and the personal lives of workers and their ability to plan ahead fall by the wayside.

German industry must stop patting itself on the back and begin doing more to build a skilled workforce. Jörg Hoffmann

Businesses should realize the need to offer a good workplace to meet the individual needs of their employees. Not surprisingly, IG Metall has made the work-life balance a top priority. Its core message: Flexibility cannot be a one-way street, with time being a crucial factor. Who decides how personal time is allocated and who has control? Flexible solutions are necessary.

We need work models that take into account different phases and situations in life. We need a new “normal employer-employee relationship.” That’s the flip-side of increasing flexibility in a global economy.

In upcoming labor negotiations for workers in the metal and electrical industries, IG Metall will focus on two important issues: We need changes that consider individual circumstances as employees approach retirement. Employees who perform difficult tasks – such as shift workers or outdoor mechanics – should be able to retire earlier. Likewise, we need a gradual reduction of working hours for older workers, to help maintain practical knowledge longer in the workplace.

To solve the imminent shortage of skilled professionals, we need an educational campaign in factories and offices about workers’ personal lives. Again, the issues are time and money. Who with a family can afford to take a year off to catch up on professional certificates or earn degrees to become better qualified? And who would risk signing an open-ended work contract to do so?

Continuing education programs supported by companies is one answer.  All types of workers are interested  in such education, not just engineers. Germany can no longer afford to see continuing education as the privilege of academics.

IG Metall seeks opportunities for both blue- and white-collar workers. The development of Industry 4.0 – Germany’s high-tech strategy for promoting computers in manufacturing – is an example of why we need this. Success in German industry is not primarily about short-term qualifications for operating new machines or programs, but for more vocational learning opportunities for employees.

German industry must stop patting itself on the back and begin doing more to build a skilled workforce. Demographic and industrial changes urgently demand more and new ways to move forward.

Jörg Hofmann is second chairman at IG Metall. He can be reached at: [email protected]