Efkemann, Germany: Training and development
Karl-Heinz Efkemann Sanitär- und Heizungsbau GmbH, with headquarters in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, was established in 1926. The company specialises in the installation of sanitary equipment and heating systems in new and existing buildings, in customer support and maintenance of oil and gas furnaces, in addition to the installation of solar power systems and ‘smart house’ components (special control technology applications), the inspection of sewage pipes with cameras, water treatment and the installation of bathrooms. Efkemann employs a total of 27 professional tradespeople, in addition to three female office workers. Of the 27 tradespeople, 18 are employed in assembly and installation, five in customer support and the remaining four are trainees. The average age of the assembly and installation staff is just under 36 years, while that of the customer support staff is 41 years. The three master craftspeople employed by the company are aged between 40 and 56 years.
Efkemann relies on continuity in relation to its human resources policy. It aims at long-term employment, from apprenticeship through to the retirement stage. This aim is supported through proper career planning of the employee’s working life, beginning with an apprenticeship at Efkemann. The trainees are taken on as regular employees at the end of their apprenticeship, and gradually become familiar with more complex tasks through continuous advanced training.
Social communication within the enterprise is not institutionalised, but takes place directly between management and staff during the course of their daily work.
The original initiative
Efkemann has pursued an age and competence-oriented approach to career development, aimed at keeping workers employed in the company for as long as possible. In this context, the fields of new building construction, remodelling of existing buildings and customer support are considered as separate qualification stages, providing opportunities for employees to move up the career ladder. The qualification requirements become more stringent from one stage to the next, and the knowledge and experience acquired in the preceding business area form the basis of the experience required for the next stage. Customer support demands the most comprehensive skills derived from experience. Tasks in this area are exclusively assigned to the older, most experienced employees. Moreover, there is less physical strain involved for these older workers in customer support than in the installation of new equipment.
In addition, a qualification concept was developed to preserve the knowledge of employees due to retire within the company (knowledge transfer), and to develop further knowledge. The following actions were implemented:
- advanced training of employees and internal workshops;
- external qualification measures;
- interviews with employees.
On the whole, these measures were considered successful by the company as well as by the employees. However, towards the end of the project, it proved difficult to continue the monthly corporate training workshops on a regular basis, since the time was often needed for daily activities. Therefore, corporate training workshops continued only sporadically and in response to special needs, after completion of the project. In any case, Efkemann’s age and competence-orientated career approach could be considered as a particularly successful solution in itself.
Good practice today
An important business area for Efkemann is that of customer support. A total of five service technicians look after more than 1,000 heating systems in the greater Duisburg area. Part of the company’s corporate philosophy is a high standard of service as well as social and professional skills in customer support. Moreover, a number of factors have brought about fundamental structural changes in the plumbing and heating service industry, including: the increasingly fast development and proliferation of highly complex and innovative technologies, more stringent legal requirements, more knowledgeable and discriminating consumers and changing customer demands, and the introduction of new work planning and corporate organisation concepts.
Along with all these developments, the qualification requirements for customer support technicians have also changed. Employees working in this area must be able to identify defects on site and to carry out repairs by themselves. The comprehensive skills necessary for such tasks can only be acquired through many years of experience and on-the-job training. Moreover, because of their intensive customer contacts, service technicians need a high standard of social skills. Younger employees are generally not able to meet such high demands, since they often lack the experience and practical know-how, as well as the necessary social skills. By contrast, older employees are well qualified for such tasks in both areas, so they are predominantly assigned to customer support roles. Younger employees are generally assigned to installations in new buildings or in existing buildings (remodelling).
The fields of new building construction, remodelling of existing buildings and customer support are considered as both qualification stages and as progressive stages of the career process, since these areas are characterised by an increasing complexity of tasks, as illustrated in the diagram below. Thus, the knowledge and experience gained from the preceding step forms the basis of experience required for the next step.
Complexity of tasks increases
Therefore, the most comprehensive knowledge and skills are required in customer support. According to the general manager, ‘only [the] most experienced technicians’ are employed in this area. The example of Efkemann shows that employment in this area is generally possible up to and even beyond the legal retirement age. A total of three employees have retired from the company during the last five years, two of whom were employed in customer support and were already 66 years old on retirement. The company’s approach to career development encompasses the worker’s entire working life, which begins with the apprenticeship stage at Efkemann. Trainees are employed on permanent contracts and become familiar with increasingly complex tasks through continuous advanced training.
Even though the service technicians are well-trained and experienced professionals, advanced training is still necessary since – in contrast to employees working in new building construction or remodelling – they are not always confronted with the latest techniques and technologies, but often have to deal with problems in older systems that are equipped with conventional and, in part, obsolete technology. To make the service technicians familiar with the latest standards of technology, internal workshops and training seminars are held at Efkemann by the company’s own master craftspeople and foremen in response to special needs. Through a combination of teaching and moderation, new topics relating to the industry and specific problem-solving strategies related to current demands are passed on. These training measures increase the overall flexibility and reliability of employees in dealing with customers on site, something that benefits both the enterprise and its employees.
Efkemann’s strategic, future-oriented human resources policy shows how a long working life up to a well-advanced age can be achieved, through preventive measures, and a combination of corporate career-planning elements with the practical implementation of qualification measures in life-long learning. Owing to the low staff turnover (during the last 10 years only two employees have left the company), it is possible for management to plan and organise the careers of its employees throughout their working lives, from apprenticeship through to the retirement stage. The advanced retirement age of the three employees who have recently retired shows that this preventive strategy is an extremely successful method for keeping older workers in employment.