The German system of "Kurzarbeit" (shorter work week) along with a demanding vocational training program have sustained its manufacturing base and much of its economy amid a growing European debt crisis. Would such an approach work in America?
"Kurzarbeit" is a German expression that essentially means, “We’re cutting your hours but we’re not laying you off.” It’s an imperfect solution to a nagging problem in a world beset by economic stagnation, flagging manufacturing and, in the U.S., massive layoffs and the waste of “human capital.”
Rather than sacking loyal, trained workers, many struggling German companies simply cut the hours of all employees in order to preserve jobs and, ultimately, the enterprise. On days when they don’t work, employees attend training sessions. German workers are treated as assets, not “overhead,” and German managers are making a bet – sticking out their necks – in hopes that new orders will come in and an economic recovery will indeed come.
Everyone is in the same boat. Labor-management negotiations are sometimes contentious, but both sides know they must live with the other. The result is consensus.
While work weeks are reduced under the German system, few lose their livelihoods. Everyone has a reason to get out of bed each morning and go to work.
Especially for U.S. engineers, it’s grim to contemplate the sheer amount of expertise, the wisdom, lost as companies have shed thousands of skilled workers during the Great Recession of 2008. Despite the bottom-line mentality of managers, American engineers and workers remain the most productive in the world.
One thing is clear: Any nation that wishes to remain competitive in global technology and manufacturing must nurture its workforce. In our 40th anniversary year, this publication is championing the revival of U.S. manufacturing. We can learn from the Germans and their enlightened policies for treating skilled workers with respect while preserving jobs and the dignity of work. The result there has been the nurturing of German industries, most of which have survived and prospered in the middle of a European sovereign debt crisis.
Some readers will counter: What? Adopt a German system just this side of socialism? True, labor costs may be higher in Germany, but Deutschland remains perhaps the only growing economy in Europe, a bastion of stability on a continent wracked with economic angst. And German manufacturing quality remains superior because workers are well-trained and maintain a largely optimistic view of the future. Job security makes workers more productive.
Still, notes a friend of EE Times who survived the worst days in Germany after World War II and prospered under its post-war vocational system, “there is no free lunch in Germany.”
He goes on to describe how the demanding but fair German apprenticeship program works based on personal experience: “After I left school, first, three to five years of strict apprenticeship (work and school) was required. Your boss constantly looked over your shoulder and is rating you month by month.
“After that I got my ‘Gesellenbrief’ [apprenticeship diploma] after passing a very tough test, which gives you for the first time the right to work without supervision in your workplace.
After the mandatory four years of practice, I applied for the ‘Meisterbrief’,” or master craftsman certificate. “That takes one year and countless weekends and evening schools to prepare. During my test, about 85 percent of my fellow students failed to pass.
“My Meisterbrief was for ‘Radio and TV’, and this test covered everything about running a company, educating young people and your own technical skills. After a daylong test in theory, I got 15 minutes to repair five TV sets.
“Only the Meisterbrief gives you the right to run your own business and train co-workers. The Meisterbrief is equal and more to the Ingenieur.”
He concludes: “Whenever I applied for a job, both briefs were always a door-opener. You are not just full of theory, but practice as well.”
So what does this mean in practice? “When you bring your car to a repair shop in Germany, only qualified people touch it. Sure, it may cost more, but I feel better.”
The German vocational system is deeply ingrained in the country’s culture. Years of study and training mean German workers are highly skilled and motivated. Employers understand this, and have reacted to the global economic slowdown in ways fundamentally different from their U.S. counterparts. Kurzarbeit is a prime example.
Perhaps it wouldn’t work in the U.S. On the other hand, we’ve got little to lose by at least trying it.
For more on Kurzarbeit and new ways of thinking about work, click here.