Case study on a comprehensive approach: Hazenberg Bouw BV, the Netherlands
Hazenberg Bouw, one of about 120 construction companies that make up TBI Holding, is situated in Vught, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. It consists of three units, all in the construction sector: Hazenberg (utility construction), Nico de Bont (restoration) and Van der Laar (housing construction). Hazenberg is the largest of these three units and employs mostly carpenters. The company functions as a contractor, employing a fixed workforce of about 200 workers and contracting additional workers as projects demand.
The workforce is mostly male. Precise figures on age are not available, but the majority of workers are between 40 and 55 years of age. Most are skilled manual workers, mainly carpenters. Staff shortages are not a significant problem because there is a large technical school in the adjacent town of Boxtel. Moreover, employee turnover is low: there have been virtually no layoffs, and employment agreements tend to last for decades rather than years. Absence due to sickness currently stands at around 9%. The pension and early retirement are the most common exit routes from employment.
Older workers are usually spared physically demanding work by means of flexible working patterns, job design, and health and well-being measures. The company views older workers as being less productive with respect to physically demanding tasks, but as being important contributors to work quality through their greater experience.
Social dialogue is limited to the works council and consultation is rather fragmented. Meetings tend to be incidental and informal. The works council states that it lacks insight into work conditions at the company.
The original initiative
Hazenberg Bouw BV developed two training and development initiatives for older workers: a job design and a health and well-being programme.
Jobs were designed to match the physical capabilities of older workers: for example, older workers were assigned tasks such as foreman responsibilities, tutoring of younger workers, and slower-paced tasks. The foreman and tutoring jobs were less physically demanding, and they also facilitated the transfer of work experience.
These practices were not formalised, although the Hazenberg planning bureau and the heads at construction sites adjusted the allocation of workers to sites, to compensate for the relatively large number of older workers.
The company also introduced comprehensive health and well-being policies, including periodic medical examinations and health advice. Recent legal changes that discourage early retirement and that penalise companies whose workers claim disability insurance make these policies worthwhile. The policies have been relatively successful: although sickness absence is comparatively high for all workers, it is no higher for older than for younger workers. This, and the relatively low rates of exit due to disability and staff turnover, indicates that Hazenberg Bouw BV has found a way to address the issue of its ageing workforce.
The company’s model of job-design adjustments seems to be transferable to other areas where physical labour is a primary part of the work, and where worker productivity can be expected to improve with experience.
Good practice today
As a construction company with a relatively old workforce, Hazenberg Bouw faced a double challenge. The workload is physically demanding and there are few options for task substitution or redeployment because most workers are carpenters. Therefore, the company maintained the original policies and practices and added two new policies over the last decade: a changed recruiting practice and flexible working practices. It has also extended the periodic health examinations.
The company began recruiting younger workers after it had hired a relatively large group of older workers in the 1990s. This was seen as a way of preserving the original initiative of adjusted job design. The practice of older workers functioning as tutors or foremen, transferring their experience to younger workers, is feasible only if the age distribution of the workers is somewhat balanced. Although the company feels that technical college graduates need more on the job training delivered by older workers, this practice requires fewer older than younger workers. There is little room for social dialogue with respect to this practice and also the gender dimension is not well defined, which is partly explained by the particularly male-dominated nature of the sector.
The 55+ initiative is a new policy on flexible working that allows workers aged 55 years and over to work a four-day week. This is financed by various means, including adjusting the participating worker’s salary. The company argues that the arrangement is necessary to help older workers ‘fight fatigue’. However, the arrangement is difficult to implement because of the way in which construction work is organised, with on-site construction and tightly scheduled activities.
The arrangement is the outcome of bipartite negotiations at branch level, and is included in the collective labour agreement for the building and utility sector. The company reports that in the past, there was a minor conflict with a trade union representative on the precise interpretation of the 55+ arrangement.
These two policies, along with the original policies and practices, preserve the employability of older workers, facilitate the transfer of work experience from older to younger workers, improve the productivity of the younger workers, and focus on the health of both younger and older workers. Although this has not reduced sickness absence rates, both employee turnover and exit due to disability are relatively low. The level of sickness absence, though still high compared to both the national and branch average, is no higher for older workers than for younger workers.
While the original policies and practices have enabled Hazenberg to retain older workers, the company has not been able to fully implement a life-course oriented personnel policy. Faced with an ageing workforce, the company started recruiting younger workers to cope with the limitations posed by existing policies. To a large extent, these limits are caused by the nature of construction work. However, working with a fixed, largely undifferentiated workforce of carpenters, while externally contracting workers in other disciplines adds to the company’s problems. It limits the options for work substitution and, therefore, limits options to retain older workers in employment.
Future prospects are affected by legal changes. Increasingly, early retirement arrangements are being abolished because the government no longer provides funding for them. At the same time, the government has increased the fines imposed on companies whose employees leave the workforce through the national disability arrangement. Construction companies must find ways to cope with the limited range of options available for redeploying older workers internally, either by institutionalising arrangements to reintegrate them elsewhere in the branch or within the company, or by further redesigning their jobs. The further redesign option appears to be particularly unfeasible, however.
Kees van Kessel, Head of personnel department, member of the Hazenberg Works Council; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Financieel Jaarverslag 2004
Sociaal Jaarverslag 2002 (last produced social verslag); www.hazenberg.nl
Collective Labour Agreement