SICK Sensor Intelligence, Germany: Comprehensive approach
SICK AG – a technology company from the capital goods sector – is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of sensors and sensor solutions. The company’s products and services are mainly used in industrial applications. With many specialised sales offices, as well as over 40 international subsidiaries and numerous participations and sales offices in over 20 countries, SICK has built up a global presence over the years. The company’s products are manufactured at its headquarters in Waldkirch, located in the state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany, and at a number of other national and international locations.
In 2005, the company had about 2,800 employees in Germany and employed around 4,000 people worldwide. Approximately 1,700 employees work at the company’s headquarters in Waldkirch: 38% are women and 62% are men. The proportion of employees aged over 50 years at the Waldkirch site is 18%. The bulk of the employees, about 68% of the workforce, are aged between 30 and 49 years. The average age of employees is just under 40 years.
SICK operates an employee-oriented human resources (HR) policy, which is reflected in a number of measures such as the organisation of working time, health promotion or the family-oriented personnel policy. For the past four years, the company has won the award for ‘Germany’s best employer’ on an annual basis. Furthermore, in 2006, SICK received a special award for the ‘Promotion of the employment of older employees’, as well as the ‘Innovation award for continuing education’ of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung).
The quality of social dialogue in the company is described as being positive and both parties are cooperative in reaching decisions. This is reflected in the fact that the works council is closely involved in the company’s initiatives.
Good practice today
Only a few of the company’s HR policy measures are geared specifically towards older employees. The company’s personnel policy does not focus on any particular age group, but rather takes a life course perspective, thus taking into account the ageing process. This perspective is more important in light of the changing institutional framework – for instance, the phasing out of partial retirement from 2009 onwards, or the successive increasing of the retirement age from the current age of 65 years to 67 years of age from 2012 onwards.
SICK’s measures in the field of life course-oriented personnel development can be summarised under the following headings:
SICK is an economically successful company, something which is also reflected in the growing number of workers who are joining the company worldwide. The continuous growth in personnel numbers has resulted in an increase of both older and younger employees. Thus, the company aims to follow the principle of equal opportunities when recruiting workers and has already employed between 40 and 50 workers over the age of 50 years in the past five years. At the same time, the company plays an active role in training young people and currently has around 100 apprentices. In addition, SICK avoids making any reference to age in its job advertisements, and rather stipulates qualifications and experience as the main recruitment criteria. These approaches represent examples of good practice in relation to the company’s overall HR policy, which relates to all age groups. Another example of good practice is also reflected in the work organisation within the company, such as the establishment of mixed-age project teams. In this respect, the HR managers particularly emphasise the fact that the social competence of the older employees has a positive influence on the social aspect of the various teams.
Training and career development
SICK generally supports the principle of lifelong learning, which has been written into the company’s guidelines since 1995. The company believes that all employees, regardless of their age, must be given the opportunity to develop further and to gain additional qualifications. Therefore, employees of all age groups partake in the continuing education measures put in place by the company. In this regard, SICK invests in all of its employees, even if they will only remain with the company for a comparatively short length of time. A central element of the ongoing development process is the appraisal interview, during which individual development goals are set in the context of target agreements, while ways of implementing these goals are agreed. The company has stipulated a number of possible ways for employees to further their education, namely through:
- internal and external further education based on the needs of employees, such as training in technical qualifications, information technology (IT) training, group and communications development;
- mixed-age team and group work with extensive responsibilities;
- intergenerational learning through the deliberate deployment of experienced employees in various project teams;
- diversification at work, for example, by means of job rotation;
- an overall method of work organisation that supports learning.
If group training takes place, it is normally conducted in mixed-age groups to avoid discrimination of any particular age group. IT training is, however, an exception in this respect, as the learning speed of older and younger employees differs with regard to the handling of new media; as a result, older employees need more time to acquaint themselves with the subject matter. To avoid conflict and stress, therefore, IT training is conducted in groups with employees of similar age.
The fact that the continuing education programmes of SICK are not only directed at the higher qualification groups is particularly illustrated by a qualification project that the company has undertaken in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Industrie- und Handelskammer, IHK), the local employment agency and the vocational school. Through this in-service training initiative, semi-skilled and unskilled employees are given the opportunity to attain the vocational qualification required to work as a parts’ finisher. Another in-service qualification training course is geared towards warehouse employees and leads to a vocational qualification in logistics.
Currently, SICK is putting into practice a project that was developed in cooperation with Freiburg’s College of Education and which is geared towards ageing workforces. The project, entitled ‘Lifelong learning – Personnel development measures for the integration and promotion of older employees’, focuses on how personnel development must be (re)organised to ensure the integration and promotion of older employees. As the project is still in the start-up phase, no definitive results of the project are available yet. In addition, the works council, which has two representatives working on this latest project, is closely involved in SICK’s projects to improve employee qualifications through the working group on ‘continuing education’. A company agreement has been drawn up on this working group.
The company addressed the topic of ‘work–life balance’ during its summer academy in 2004, and has since tried to promote this issue as a company initiative. Seminars and lectures are held for the employees to help support them in reconciling their work and private lives. A selection of topics were addressed in the lectures and seminars, which were open to employees and their partners, such as: stress management; balancing work and social life; practising Tai Chi; and the body’s reaction to stress.
Family-friendly human resources policy
The company’s family-oriented HR policy encompasses a variety of different areas, including services for families, the promotion of women, measures for fathers, or day care for children. SICK is particularly active in the area of childcare and has funded the establishment of a day care centre in Waldkirch, which is currently being built. This will enable SICK’s employees to access day care for their children (from birth up to the age of six years). Through this option, mothers employed by SICK are thus given the opportunity to return to work relatively quickly after a period of leave. Furthermore, since April 2006, SICK has instituted a homework supervision service on its premises, which it annually subsidises with a sum of €70,000. Moreover, all of the employees’ children are permitted to eat in the company’s canteen, with the company covering half of the costs.
In 2004, SICK introduced a combined working time and retirement investment account system, aimed at promoting and supporting a better organisation of working time over the life course. Under this scheme, the employees can transfer a certain amount of overtime (which differs for production and development) to their working time account and subsequently convert it into money (‘gross for net’). This money is paid into an external fund, which was chosen in conjunction with the works council. After a period of accrual, employees can decide how to use the money saved in the account. They can use it for a period of paid time in-lieu (for example, downtime or further education), for a temporary reduction of weekly working hours, for early retirement, for the reduction of weekly working hours in the pre-retirement phase, or for additional pension contributions. However, taxes and social insurance contributions only accrue on payment. At present, all employees are still in the accrual period.
Retirement and knowledge transfer
The company’s appreciation of its older employees is reflected in the fact that they are considered as mentors for the younger employees, particularly in the fields of sales and the promotion of trainees. Furthermore, the company follows the mentoring initiative when filling managing director jobs at international level.
This appreciation of older employees is also reflected in the way the company prepares its employees for retirement and also in its continued contact with former SICK employees. For example, the company organises two-day seminars on retirement for employees above the age of 55 years, also inviting the employees’ respective partners to participate. The purpose of these seminars is to prepare employees for their retirement and the life changes that this transition will bring. Once these workers retire, the company’s contact with former employees is not necessarily severed, as the pensioners continue to be invited to company functions and are given the opportunity to maintain contact with former employees via this network.
SICK’s health management initiative comprises both organisational and employee-related measures. These measures are geared towards promoting employees’ health during their career, and cover the entire workforce by concentrating on risk-prevention measures. To assist in the implementation of the company’s health policy goals in health maintenance and promotion, a working group for health issues was set up. The latter group consists of members of the works council, the company physician, company management, an occupational safety specialist, a health protection and ergonomics specialist, representatives of disabled people, as well as the safety manager.
The organisation-related measures aimed at promoting employees’ health include the following:
- increasing the transparency of company decisions;
- enhancing the leniency with regard to strict policies;
- participatory work and organisation design;
- group work in conjunction with job rotation and job development;
- employee-oriented working time organisation;
- risk assessment.
The following initiatives are among the employee-related measures aimed at promoting health issues:
- communications training;
- training of executives;
- qualification of group work;
- stress management training;
- time management training;
- health checks, health counselling and health days;
- working group to encourage sports activities (currently 17 sports groups).
In conclusion, SICK’s HR policy can be characterised as having a high level of age-awareness, due to its focus on risk prevention and on improving the overall working life. Therefore, the company intends to continue and to further develop this personnel policy in the future. In doing so, particular attention will be paid to the conception of new employee development paths, which will make horizontal careers possible for employees later on in their working lives.
Contact: Rudolf Kast, Managing Director of Human Resources, email: firstname.lastname@example.org