Bekaert, Belgium: redeployment, training and development
Bekaert NV is a global company, which has its headquarters in Zwevegem. The company is active in three core areas: advanced metal transformation; advanced wire products and fencing systems; and advanced materials and coatings.
Bekaert Belgium employs approximately 3,000 people, including 8% of women employees. About 7% of employees work part time. The average length of time worked by employees within the company is 21 years. As staff turnover is low, the average age of employees is relatively high at 42 years.
Following restructuring in the 1980s, the number of employees at Bekaert was reduced to 3,000 employees, largely through bridging pensions. At present, workers can still retire at the age of 55. Under the ‘Canada Dry’ early retirement system introduced in Belgium, the employee, instead of receiving an early retirement pension, is dismissed by the organisation; however, the employer pays a lump sum on top of the unemployment benefit received over a certain period. After one year on unemployment benefit, from the age of 50 years, these workers then have access to entitlements under the status ‘older unemployed’.
Thus, there are few workers aged 55 years and over working at Bekaert. Although senior staff members are not entitled to make use of the Canada Dry arrangement, all executive staff can retire at the age of 60; therefore, none of the executive staff work at Bekaert beyond 60 years of age.
Bekaert NV tries to avoid dismissal of its employees and to find solutions for problematic situations. Workers are represented in the works council. The union delegation is informed about and involved in different organisational matters. Problems and solutions concerning health and safety issues are discussed in the CPWB (committee on prevention and safety at the workplace).
The original initiative
Bekaert aims to find individual solutions to problems encountered by ageing employees. One solution involved the transfer of older workers to a ‘double placement’ (where workers work every second week). However, because such a system resulted in a compulsory loss of income, it was perceived as a form of demotion.
Due to the increased emphasis on ergonomics and further automation, working conditions have greatly improved within the company. Instead of reappointing older workers with medical complaints to a double placement job, older blue-collar workers with problems are now reappointed to specific jobs more suited to people with medical conditions. Under this system, income loss is not as substantial and the replacement is not seen as a demotion.
Bekaert considers knowledge recording and transfer to be highly important and therefore decided to take part in the Knowledge Pool 50+ project, which began in 2001. As part of this programme, all partners expressed their willingness to invest in the transfer of knowledge of their experienced staff and to develop an age-conscious staff policy. This project consisted of an e-learning project, whereby experience was electronically recorded and can now be accessed worldwide. Knowledge Pool 50+ also provides an electronic ‘train-the-trainer toolkit’, which enables people to record or transfer their knowledge.
In 2002, Bekaert initiated another project called the Feniks project. At that point, 42% of executive staff members were aged 50 years and over, thus high turnover was expected. Bekaert wanted to strengthen the employability of all executive staff members, therefore, the goal of the project was to develop structures and procedures that would help older executive staff members remain on at work in a sustainable and flexible manner.
Good practice today
In the next 10 years, approximately 40% of executive staff members at Bekaert will retire. Therefore, much attention is being devoted to this group.
As a result of the Feniks project, a formal procedural text, ‘Advice and measures concerning a sustainable and flexible career for Belgian executive staff members aged 50 and above’, was compiled. Several actions were agreed upon and subsequently carried out. Executive staff representatives were actively involved throughout the entire process. Since the project has only recently been concluded, however, no formal evaluation of the different measures has yet been undertaken.
In another move, a monitoring instrument was developed to examine the age structure of the organisation. The company reconfirmed its belief that age should not be a criterion during a selection or promotion procedure, as competencies and experience are more important. Vacancies and procedures were also screened. Today, internal career moves (both horizontal and vertical) at every age are deemed possible and older employees are not held back in their career moves. At their own request, older staff executives are allowed, however, to take a step backwards; demotion with income loss is also a possibility.
During career guidance interviews with older executive staff members, the wishes, ambitions, and positive and negative aspects of their career, are discussed. Older executive staff members are also encouraged to participate in training programmes. A training programme for the entire company is developed annually, with special attention paid to the training needs of older employees. Experienced staff (aged 50 years and over) are encouraged to act as mentors and coaches to younger employees – an important step in the process of knowledge recording and transfer.
In view of the relatively older age profile of the company’s executive staff, knowledge recording is considered very important. This was one of the primary motives behind Bekaert’s participation in the Knowledge Pool 50+ project. At least six months before retirement, executive staff members are now required to undertake knowledge recording and transfer. This can be done by means of the toolkit developed during the Knowledge Pool 50+ project.
Special attention is also given to creating a positive image for older employees. Different formulas concerning career endings were discussed and the following measures were finally agreed upon:
• Although the retirement age remains at 60 years, there are more opportunities to retire earlier or later. This decision is taken on an individual basis. Exceptions are only granted when a win-win situation for the organisation and individual is created.
• Executive staff aged 50 years and over are allowed to work part time (50% to 90%). If executive staff members qualify for working part time under the ‘time credit’ system, they receive an additional bonus from the government.
• Some older workers are partially disabled at work and severe health conditions may mean that only part-time work is possible. In this case, health insurance compensates for the loss of income.
• The latest and most original initiative permits employees to work part time in Bekaert and part time elsewhere. This project is part of a broader ‘skills pooling’ project.
A study was conducted to investigate the feasibility of a skills pooling project. The goal of this project is to temporarily redeploy older employees who cause some sort of problem for Bekaert, e.g. overstaffing, on a part-time secondment as an expert to another company. As Bekaert has a policy of not dismissing workers aged 55 and over, skills pooling can provide a solution for both individuals and the organisation. Accordingly, the experts are ‘loaned out’ to other companies through an external partner. As this project has just started, a future evaluation will be necessary to determine the long-term feasibility of the initiative.
Contact person: Luc Buyst, Group HR project manager
Bekaert, Building the future, Together, Worldwide, Annual report, 2004.
Buyst, L., ‘Project Feniks at Bekaert – sustainability and flexibility in the career development of executive staff aged 50 and above’, HR seminar, 2002.
Groepsdienst Personeelsbeleid, Procedure ‘Aanbevelingen en maatregelen voor een duurzame en flexibele loopbaan van Belgische kaderleden van 50 jaar en meer [Advice and measures concerning a sustainable and flexible career for Belgian executive staff members aged 50 and above]’, 26 September 2002.
Company website: www.bekaert.com