EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

BMW-Leipzig, Germany: Increasing the labour market participation of underrepresented groups – women


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increasing labour market participation of underrepresented groups

BMW's decision to build a state-of-the-art factory in Leipzig involved a progressive and innovative employment policy to retrain and employ long-term unemployed women and elderly workers. Known as ‘Poleposition’, 647 unemployed people have successfully completed the course and achieved gainful employment at BMW-Leipzig.

Organisational background

Over the last decade, BMW has gone through a major period of change. From being a very local firm, traditionally an exporter of luxury cars from Germany, BMW now has production sites in the USA, South Africa and the UK. In addition to its BMW models it also builds the re-launched Mini as well as Rolls-Royce. Altogether BMW currently delivers around 1,300,000 vehicles per year to customers. Although Germany and the UK remain the firm's key markets in Europe, sales in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have noticeably increased in recent years and the US market continues to be an important revenue source.

With a workforce of 106,000 employees worldwide, BMW is a renowned supporter of social dialogue. Its commitment to working closely with employee representatives has historical roots dating back to the late 1950s. It was in this period that the works council played a significant role in forming and supporting a consortium headed by the Quandt family (still the main BMW shareholders) to save BMW from extinction. This fact has never been forgotten and remains an integral influence in moulding the way the firm is governed. In addition, BMW supports the United Nations’ Global Compact and the International Labour Organization’s standards. In terms of trade union representation, IG Metall is the main labour organiser, with a union density of about 80%. IG Metall also has a seat on the supervisory board.

Currently BMW employs about 2,500 workers at its Leipzig BMW plant. It has a total female workforce of 13%. Of these, over 20% are employed in engineering and 12% in production positions.

Description of the initiative

In 2000, BMW announced that it would build a new car factory to increase its production capacity. A total of 250 potential sites across Europe were considered. In 2001, BMW reported that it had chosen Leipzig to be the location of its new site. It was planned that the site will eventually employ 5,500 workers and produce 650 cars a day.

There were a number of factors favourable to investing 1.3 billion euro in Leipzig according to Helmut Panke CEO of BMW. Among other things, these factors included: proximity to its Bavarian plants, proximity to suppliers in middle and southern Germany and subsidies.

Another key factor was access to highly-qualified personnel. During the DDR period, the Leipzig area was a hub of engineering shops. As a result, BMW had access to skilled employees, but especially female workers. The Leipzig personnel policy quickly became a key issue for BMW. The firm was very conscious of past mistakes it had made in opening new factories, as well as the demands posed by future demographic developments. When opening its last Germany factory in 1986 at Regensburg, it implemented what BMW respondents referred to as the Olympic Team principle, i.e. employing highly fit and predominantly 20 to 30 year-old males. As BMW now realises, the existence of an even age structure has associated problems. It primarily results in a collective group loss of experience when retirement nears. In addition, BMW was aware of the skills shortage that it could face in the future and the fact that female employment remains an often untapped resource.

Leipzig BMW’s management and the newly formed works council were committed to what they referred to as a ‘harmonised workforce structure’ in terms of age and gender. This stance however, was not reflected in the first hiring wave in early 2002 and was the cause for some concern. The newly-employed personnel were predominantly male and under 35 years of age. Further, most had been in gainful employment, which meant that BMW was doing nothing to help reduce the region's 20% unemployment problem. In addition, at the very beginning women only accounted for 2% of all applications, which was well below the aim of ensuring that female employees made up around 16% of the workforce.

Faced by these structural problems, BMW was forced to develop a training programme which would increase the quota of female, elderly and unemployed individuals. In addition, it launched various campaigns, particularly in the local media, to stress that it was interested in employing these target groups.

In terms of training, the programme, known as ‘Poleposition’, had two aims: to help reintegrate people who had experienced long-term unemployment back into the labour market and to function as a selection process to achieve a harmonised workforce.

The training programme involved a joint venture with the city of Leipzig, the job local centre and PUUL GmbH (initially set up by BMW). The programme was eventually overseen by PUUL GmbH. This approach eventually helped to improve the demographic structure of applications, with around 18,000 people applying to participate in Poleposition.

With the help of the University of Halle, the interested parties developed a curriculum which would theoretically and practically prepare applicants to successfully complete BMW’s 2-year qualification programme, which had been created for the new Leipzig workforce.

The programme was divided into three stages: two qualification phases and one placement phase. Once individuals had successfully completed a personal interview and assessment, applicants started a three-week training course. Here the focus was on social behaviour and cognitive learning. Issues such as team work and what it means to work in a factory were addressed. This was followed by a 5-week work period at BMW’s Munich, Regensberg and Dingolfing factories, during which participants were integrated into production teams. This offered individuals the chance to assess whether the course they had chosen was the right one for them, and it offered BMW the opportunity to observe potential future employees. For example, BMW could assess whether applicants were able to adjust to teamwork and be punctual and mobile. After staying for five weeks in one of the Bavarian plants, the second qualification period took place. Lasting a week, the applicants reflected on what had been learned in the previous eight weeks, which helped to prepare them for their new job at BMW-Leipzig.


Concerned with developing a structurally harmonised workforce, BMW was forced to create some initiatives, Poleposition being the foremost of these. A key part of BMW’s hiring policy between 2002 and 2004 was designed to ensure that elderly and female workers participated in a nine-week training programme. BMW consciously controlled the selection process to ensure that both target groups received preferential treatment, a clear form of positive discrimination. Of the 800 applicants who participated in Poleposition, 35% were women. This figure was particularly high in 2004, at 70%. This latter figure was the result of a concerted effort on the part of BMW to rectify the initial low level of female participation in 2002 and 2003.

Altogether 700 Poleposition participants, individuals who had previously been unemployed, successfully completed the programme. This represents a success rate of almost 90%. Of these, 647 (92%) gained permanent positions at BMW's Leipzig plant.

The training and employment measures implemented by BMW in Leipzig undoubtedly helped to offer unemployed female workers future job prospects. According to the works council, however, the demands of Poleposition, in particular the five-week placement in Bavaria, disqualified many potential female applicants. Irrespective of the fact that BMW offered financial assistance in addition to the unemployment benefit received, as well as free accommodation, a lot of women with family commitments were de facto excluded.

Exemplary and contextual factors

BMW has introduced an innovative policy designed to increase female participation in a sector dominated by male employment. Moreover, it has targeted long-term unemployed women. Its Poleposition programme represents the beginning of a policy initiative to improve the position of women within BMW's Leipzig plant, according to the works council. More flexible and female-friendly working time practices remain an important future agenda issue for the newly formed works council.

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