What is Today for Tomorrow?
BMW launched the Today for Tomorrow initiative as early as 2005, to prepare itself for an aging workforce. In the early years of the initiative, BMW introduced health management programs for employees. By 2011 and 2012, BMW piloted and implemented ergonomic changes across plants in Germany and is now beginning to roll these out internationally.
An aging population and an aging workforce are immediate realities – all the baby boomers will be 65+ by 2030 – but very few employers are addressing this need and implementing solutions. Countries like Germany and Singapore, where the population is both shrinking and aging, are more active in this regard, while others are still finding their way.
Aging workforce at BMW
An audit on its workplace revealed the average age of BMW workers at its Dingolfing plant was 39 in 2007, and was projected to rise to 47 by 2017 (it’s currently around 42).
This led to several key questions:
How does the new age structure affect production? How can physical labour be organised more ergonomically and age-appropriately? How can we use the particular strengths of our older employees?
In particular, BMW was concerned about negative impacts of aging such as loss of productivity, increase in health costs, psychological health issues, conflict between different generations, mass retirement and knowledge loss. BMW believed that these impacts could be prevented and managed. As BusinessWeek’s Chris Farrell put it:
“An aging population may be inevitable. A decline in worker productivity with an aging labor force isn’t.”
BMW identified four areas where they could slow down the effects of aging, and has introduced programs catering to all four:
- Individual healthcare –teaching employees how to take care of their physical and mental health from the day they join BMW, regardless of their age
- Qualification and leadership –teaching all employees how to work together despite age gaps, and ensuring retention and sharing knowledge before older employees retire
- Ergonomics & individual working time –making plants – and soon offices – less physically demanding (i.e., more age-friendly), and giving employees more options around work hours, leaves and partial retirement
- Social contacts –ensuring older employees are part of a community
Today, BMW defines the key areas of Today for Tomorrow as “health management; qualifications; work environment; retirement models; as well as communications and change management.”
Twenty years ago, it was rare to see people working beyond their fifties – they were typically see as less productive employees. Today, it’s still a challenge for people above 50 to find a job, but a large number of older workers still make up the work force. The number of older workers is set to rise. In the UK, 27% of the workforce is 50+ today – this will increase to one third in 2020. Likewise in the US, the percentage of 50+ workers will increase to 35% by 2019. The proportion of the workforce over 65 is already 3.3% in the UK and 16% in the US!
There are three broad reasons for this trend.
First, populations are becoming older – especially in the west and in markets like Singapore and Japan – and skilled young talent is hard to come by. For instance, 30% of Japan’s population is over 60. By 2050, there will 64 countries in this boat, where 30% of the population is over 60.
Second, people’s life expectancy is increasing; they are healthier and thus able and interested in working longer, or they have to keep working to sustain their lifestyles for longer.
Third, older people have to work to make ends meet because of rising costs and lost pensions – in fact governments that are paying heavy sums in pensions and social security are finding its easier to keep people in the workforce and earning their own money. Some governments like the US already have anti-age discrimination laws in place, and others are considering removing a forced retirement age.
In addition to these external trends, some companies, like BMW, simply need experienced and high skilled workers. The Daily Mail’s Allan Hall noted:
“Because Germany has a highly skilled workforce – but an increasing skills gap – BMW has taken the lead to get those laid off or in early retirement back on the production line.”
While companies need to cater to this new demographic, they also need to maintain (if not boost) productivity.
An ergonomic makeover
In 2011, BMW simulated the predicted average age at a production line at the Dingolfing plant and piloted ergonomic changes to combat productivity loss. A 42 member team introduced 70 changes over the course of a year, including:
- a barbershop chair so that employees could alternate between sitting and standing
- orthopaedic shoes for comfort
- magnifying lenses to reduce eye strain and minimize sorting errors
- enhanced lighting for the visually challenged
- tilted screens to improve posture
- machines to lift heavy weights and reduce physical demands of the job
- employee rotation to reduce physical strain (having people do various tasks instead of repeating the same tasks all day)
- introduction of multiple short breaks to reduce strain
- ‘MoveUp’ programme to “preserve, improve and rejuvenate the workers’ musculoskeletal system”
- fitness centres and physiotherapy treatment on-site
Ludwig Lang, one of the engineers on the project, shares his experience in this video.
Return on investment
The total investment on the production line was around $50,000. The return – the group increased productivity by seven per cent in one year, making it as productive as lines made up of younger workers.
BMW launched similar programs to counter-act the adverse effects of aging at all German-speaking plants – over a few hundred areas. Since 2011, 10,000 employees have benefitted from the program. An international roll out was launched in 2012, beginning with a production facility in Austria and a plant in the UK. In 2012, BMW opened a car plant specifically for older workers. The AARP awarded BMW with the Best Employers award in 2011 for this initiative.
Rising trend: Flexibility
BMW also supports its older employees with various flexible work options, including temporary part-time positions, intermittent part-time work, and job-sharing among several employees; a sabbatical program allowing employees an additional 20 days off a year; and a phased retirement program.
Flexible working schedules are common in countries like Singapore as well, and are intended to help older employees maintain their work-life balance and stay back or re-enter the workforce.
In addition to flexibility, companies are also creating fellowship schemes to retain older employees as mentors and to facilitate knowledge share, policies that make it easier for retirees to re-enter the workforce, and equality champions to help workers get along despite age barriers.
Are employers prepared?
The extent of BMW’s support for older workers stands out in stark contrast in a world where few HR managers and boards are actively preparing for an aging workforce. For instance, surveys in the UK found that only 14% of managers believe they are well equipped to cope with an ageing workforce.
Source: The Ageing UK Workforce by unum
Lack of preparedness can be explained by the polarized view of the performance of older workers – some argue that older worker’s life experiences help them relate to customers better, more patient and more loyal; while others argue that physical and mental health interfere with the job.
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