Trade-off in a German plant: flexible hours in return for high-tech advances

One of the challenges of ``rationalizing'' industry in Europe has been that, although unions have seen the future in terms of fewer working hours so that more people can have jobs, management has insisted that without more automation, there won't be any jobs left to share. The rub is that automation is so expensive that new machines must be run as many hours as possible. ``What we have done is to uncouple the individual's working hours from the factory's,'' says Walter H. Schusser, director of the personnel department at Siemens AG, the electronics giant based here.

Last year's contract between Siemens and IG Metall, the big metalworkers' union, finally gave the company some of the labor flexibility German industry has been crying for. Under the agreement, the average workweek was reduced from 40 to 38.5 hours (the union had asked for 35 hours).

In return the company is allowed to vary individuals' working hours, as long as the average workweek of the average full-time worker in each plant comes out to 38.5. Siemens is making use of part-timers and a variety of scheduling options.

The highly skilled, highly productive workers, who are much in demand -- computer programmers, and so on -- work 40 hours a week. Unskilled younger workers -- who might otherwise be on unemployment rolls -- have been working 37 hours a week. It's not full-time work but it's not idleness, either. It's a system that fits individuals' needs better, Mr. Schusser suggests.

Schusser cites the plant making Siemens's popular laser printers as an example. The printers are in demand, so production needs to be at top capacity.

The machines that produce them, however, have a delivery time of 15 to 18 months, and the factory is too crowded to put new machines in, anyway.

The solution? Four groups of workers work a different six-day shift each week and get each fourth week off. Plant utilization went from 80 to 136 hours a week.

Part of Germany's problem, but only part, is demographic: A wave of baby-boomers into the work force which will not crest until the early 1990s. Labor demand in Germany is expected to be flat, says Schusser; economic growth is expected to run about 2.5 percent annually through the end of the century. Productivity growth, a result of automation, should be 3 percent -- this means a shrinking demand for labor, of one-half of 1 percent annually, offset by flexible scheduling, use of part-timers, and so

on.

``Even if you assumed 4.5 to 5 percent economic growth, which is unrealistic, this gap begins to narrow only at the end of the century,'' Schusser says.

Programs like Siemens's may help workers accept automation better. Japanese workers have accepted automation because they have been made to feel secure that their employers will be able to market increased production successfully. In other words, automation has been thought of as a way to produce more with the same people. In Germany, there has often been a feeling that automation would mean producing the same, but with fewer people.

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