Case study on flexible working practices: Verkehrs Aktiengesellschaft (VAG) Nuremberg, Germany
Verkehrs Aktiengesellschaft (VAG) is a public transport company, which is 100% owned by the Städtischen Werke Nürnberg (Utilities), whose sole shareholder is the city of Nuremberg. Every day more than 600,000 people travel on VAG buses, underground trains and trams.
VAG employs around 1,900 workers, 930 of whom are drivers, 9% of those being women. Most drivers have received vocational training, although it is not compulsory for the driving service. The drivers’ average age is 44.5 years and 28% of them are over 50 years. A current hiring freeze, along with regulations that protect against dismissal, mean that the VAG expects a further ageing of its workforce.
Previously, VAG offered early retirement to reduce staff levels, but recent pension scheme changes have limited the use of this strategy. Furthermore, some 123 of VAG’s employees are currently in partial retirement.
VAG is bound by the collective agreement of the public service. The collectively agreed provisions on partial retirement, the protection of vested rights, and dismissal protection are particularly relevant to older workers, as vested rights and dismissal protection are gained after 15 years employment. Both the company and the labour representatives consider their relationship to be cooperative and constructive.
The original initiative
In the 1980s, VAG conducted a project entitled, Improvement of the Work Situation of Drivers of Public Transport, within the framework of a programme called Humanisation of Working Life. In particular, the project examined disease incidence and cases of unfitness to drive among bus, tram and underground train drivers. It showed that about 85% percent of employees left the driving service before retirement age because of unfitness to engage in this type of work; it also revealed that older drivers (56 years and over) took around five times more sick leave than younger drivers.
Following this project, the company developed a number of measures, among which the ‘special driver group’ proved the most effective. A driver group is a group of drivers who are scheduled to work on the same shifts. The special driver group measure reduced working hours for drivers over 57 years, irrespective of their health. Older drivers were released from one shift a week (a short morning shift) with pay retention.
This measure proved very effective in reducing the number of days that drivers over 57 years lost through sickness. It also halved the number of drivers who left the service due to unfitness to work.
Good practice today
VAG has long been concerned with finding ways to promote the employability of its older workers. The company’s original training and development initiative examined disease incidence and cases of unfitness to drive. As a result, the company developed measures to improve the drivers’ working conditions. Many of the measures introduced at that time are still in operation and others have since been added, including the following health promotion initiatives:
- back care, which is an integral part of the vocational training;
- a health-oriented nutrition and catering model;
- courses and seminars on coping with stress, on conflict management, and on communication;
- health circles;
- the opportunity for training in physiotherapy;
- the ergonomic design of drivers’ seats for buses, trams and trains;
- a comprehensive range of medical check-ups and examinations, as well as addiction prevention.
Measures in the field of work organisation include:
- a service area in which approximately 100 performance-challenged workers are employed;
- a service support pool, which was set up for drivers who are temporarily or permanently unfit to work in the driving service (up to 10 employees);
- the introduction of mixed activities, allowing drivers to alternate between driving and driving-related activities (around 70 employees).
Measures in the field of working time organisation include:
- the introduction of shifts without shift work. Three drivers have availed of this measure in the last year and a half;
- a computer-supported individual roster compilation that takes account of drivers’ needs and wishes;
- the ability to drive for only half a day, for up to three months, for example, in the run-up to a hip operation;
- the special driver group.
The special driver group was introduced in the mid-1980s, as a result of the original initiative. It allows for reduced working hours for drivers over the age of 57 years, irrespective of their health. Older drivers are released from work on the fifth day of their shift (after a short morning shift) without losing pay. The special driver group provisions are laid down in a company agreement. Today, about 25 drivers partake in this group.
The special driver group initiative has proved extremely effective. Work disability data show that it can greatly reduce the number of days lost due to sickness among drivers aged 57 years and over. Moreover, it can halve the number of drivers leaving the driving service, from around 40 to 20 drivers a year.
This means that drivers can stay in the service for longer and remain healthier, thus retaining their professional status. They can remain in their accustomed social environment, continuing to work independently, and their performance is appreciated. The employees value the opportunity to switch to the special driver group and all who are eligible to make use of this initiative do so.
The benefits of reduced absenteeism and unfitness to drive are mainly economic for the company. Drivers aged 57 years and over effectively drive more hours now than they did before the special driver group measure was introduced.
The political framework has had a part to play in the success of this initiative, as the project was co-financed by the programme, Humanisation of Working Life, which supported the overall aim of improving the work situation and working conditions.
At present, the company is establishing health-management structures that will include organisation and procedure agreements regarding workplace health promotion, and that will explicitly consider the question of work–life balance. The company also recognises that personnel development is an important topic and that it must address questions such as: Which personnel development paths are conceivable for the future?; Which qualification strategies and concepts are needed for these?
Finally, greater use of innovative working time models (for example, ‘shifts without shift work’) is being considered at present for employees who would like to upgrade their qualifications.
- Dr. Werner Ell, Company physician, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Company website: http://www.vag.de