"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.
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.
Reader Verne Olsen sent us this:
I read with interest your article in EET about German kurzarbeit, and the question “Could it work here?”. My son has been working in the US for a company that has been implementing this for the past four years (that I’m aware of). He’s had a job all the way through this recession/depression; albeit, at 32 hour weeks the paycheck is harder to stretch to cover all his needs. He is making his house payment, putting food on the table, and contributing to the local economy. The company is Marvin Windows in Warroad, MN; I think at least part of the reason they can do this is because they are a private company, managed by local people with local concerns, and not responding to the whims of Wall Street. It’s not always been an easy road, but from my perspective it’s a positive way of responding to the downturn.
George: good point! NPR reported the other day that the hourly rates for UAW workers have dropped to $15 approx; perhaps this contributed to the profitability in Detroit recently?
US continues to be the place where the executive salaries are grossly out of step with average worker salaries when compared to EU and rest of the world.
Been there, done that. I was Kurzarbeit-ed for 15 months when the auto industry crashed recently. It gave me stability and enough income that I wasn't forced to look for another job, kept me up to date on projects the company was working on--and also gave me (much-enjoyed) 4 day weekends every week. I appreciate that the company viewed me as a resource they didn't want to lose. Much, much better than being laid off.
On one hand, if your employer is interested in you, you may negotiate a contract down to let's say 10 h/week still getting the benefits.
An the other hand there is marginal employment (very low salary), wage dumping etc.
Germany is far from paradise anyway, but - as already mentioned - the educated workers are considered some type of asset.
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