Driving change

Tom Barton

How one car manufacturer steered their ageing workforce towards higher productivity

As the world’s working population ages, companies head into uncharted territory. Ageing workers make up an increasing percentage of the total working population, yet many employers still don’t feel equipped to deal with this demographic shift.

It’s no longer an option to retrench older workers over speculation of their decreased productivity or increased risk of workplace injuries. A multitude of reasons have now emerged showing employers why they need to re-evaluate misconceptions about the ageing workforce.

It is estimated that between 1998 and 2016, more than 80 per cent of all Australian workforce growth will come in the 45+ demographic. Understanding how to deal with the issues unique to this situation will be the key to ensuring sustained productivity and optimal workforce health.

Many other countries are also facing the challenge of an ageing workforce. German employers have noticed this trend sooner and more acutely than almost anywhere else in the world. More than one-fifth of Germany's population will be over 65 by the year 2020, prompting the country’s employers to seek feasible workplace accommodations for what has been described as the ‘silver tsunami.’

As the employer of 18,000 ageing manufacturing workers, German car manufacturer BMW recognised the demographic shift within their own assembly lines. With a resolve to utilise their older workers' greater "patience and skill,” BMW have devised a creative solution heralded by the Harvard Business review as effectively, “defusing the demographic time-bomb.”

When asked by CBS reporter Richard Roth why BMW didn’t just fire the older workers, find different roles for them or force them to retire, manager Helmut Mauermann responded, “That might be the simple way to solve the problem. But we have a social contract within Germany, or as BMW group, where we say that’s not the solution we will look for. Especially since we don’t have enough younger people actually to replace (the older workers), so it wouldn’t even work if we wanted to.”

BMW re-staffed one of their assembly lines with workers from around their plant, so that the average worker age was 47. This figure is predicted to be the mean worker-age seven years from now. BMW then consulted the older workers on what workplace changes they needed, precipitating a rollout of 70 small changes designed to “cut the chance of errors and reduce physical strain.”

Changes made included custom-made shoes and wooden flooring to remedy sore feet, magnifying panels and computer screens with bigger type for ageing eyes, adapted tools for older hands, modified tall hairdresser-style chairs for straining backs, and stretching equipment for use between shifts.

The results? Productivity went up seven per cent, while the assembly line’s defect rate dropped to zero. Absenteeism also fell below the plant's average.

All of these plusses flowed on because BMW found a way ensure the biggest benefit of all - retaining the vast body of skills, experience and loyalty held by its ageing workforce.

For those who think it’s a nice idea but probably not possible in labour-intensive industries – think again. This all took place on a physically demanding automotive production line.

When asked how they got it all to work, BMW line manager Kai Biedermann emphasised one thing, “It’s simple, it’s all so simple. But you have to ask them.”

Mauermann concurred, “All these changes are extremely obvious. But you won’t come to these changes sitting somewhere in an office and then thinking, ‘how can I change the working place of a worker who is half a mile away?”

The changes cost around $50,000US to implement, including lost-time during the installation period. That’s a pretty small price to pay for even one of the many benefits the plant enjoyed.

Roth noted how successful BMW found this proactive approach to their ageing workforce, observing that BMW managers no longer call it, “a project to aid the elderly; it’s simply BMW’s fresh new plan to improve productivity.”

Head to this link for the CBS video report.

Published 12 September, 2010