In the stakeholder dialog, Volkswagen regularly invites guests to an open exchange of opinions about sustainability issues. Participating this time is the former chair of the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany), Andrea Nahles. In this interview, the former Labor Minister talks about the consequences of digitalization and about finding the right balance between climate protection and job security.
Interview with Andrea Nahles, former Minister of Labour
Andrea Nahles criticizes the sharp conflict between environmental and employment interests. “I hope that the stakeholder dialogue builds bridges.”
Digitalization and climate protection are fundamentally changing the economy. What are the greatest challenges?
According to a study by the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, by 2035 four million jobs will be lost due to digitalization alone. At the same time, 3.3 million new jobs will be created in areas such as IT. We are therefore in the middle of a massive structural transformation. In order to shape this transformation, qualifying for new jobs must become an integral part of the workplace. This is the central duty of companies, employees and politicians.
Many people fear for their jobs. Do you share this anxiety?
We have to take this seriously. Not everyone who has been doing a good job for 20 years likes to hear that a new phase of learning is now beginning again. Some are open to this. But many people ask themselves: What will I be up against? That’s why I expect companies and politicians to be honest with people, and to be transparent about what digitalization and the transition to electric mobility will mean.
What should companies like Volkswagen do?
They must prepare their employees for the changes. Companies should not wait until the structural transformation has taken place and their employees’ qualifications no longer match the requirements. I found good examples of further training being carried out in a timely manner during my two visits to the Volkswagen plants in Zwickau and Braunschweig. The whole Group can learn a lot from these.
(Note: In Zwickau, Volkswagen is qualifying 8,000 employees for the production of electric cars. In the Braunschweig branch of Volkswagen Group Components, the company has trained 400 employees for serial production of battery systems, with 100 more soon to follow.)
What is the role of politics?
Politics can mitigate income losses that occur during periods of further training. That is exactly what is intended by the Qualification Opportunity law. In addition, we need greater investment in infrastructure in order to secure the expansion of electric mobility, for example. When the new electric cars come onto the market, people have to know where they can find the nearest charging station. Otherwise, sales will not meet expectations, which would put many jobs in Germany at risk.
Does everyone already understand this?
My feeling is that everyone is now alert enough to do what is necessary, but we also have to act quickly. After 2008, Germany came through the crisis well, because politicians, companies and employees worked closely together. With measures such as the short-time work allowance, we acted more effectively than many other countries did. We can be pleased that industry still plays twice as important a role in Germany as in Great Britain or the USA. We now have to defend this strong role played by industry. To do this requires at least as much effort as during the financial crisis.
Many people are scared of losing their job, but at the same time, companies complain of a lack of skilled labor. How does this fit together?
The shortage of skilled labor primarily concerns specific professions such as engineers and mechatronics engineers. On the other hand, many companies still have a lot of unskilled or partially skilled laborers. These are the people who will have problems because there will be a fall in demand for less qualified work. At the moment, people earn good money even without a professional qualification – but this is changing, because the competition is becoming tougher. It is for this group that further training opportunities are particularly important. It is not the case that we in Germany are running out of workplaces. But seven million jobs are changing. We need a qualification plan for Germany.
What contribution can Volkswagen’s stakeholder dialogue make?
Working on an extensive qualification plan goes far beyond a single company and has to be embraced by society. This is an important reason why I am participating in the stakeholder dialogue. In addition, I have observed for a long time that the confrontation between environmental and employment interests is becoming increasingly tough. People talk with one another a lot, but there is no growth in mutual understanding. The climate argument, in particular, is becoming increasingly implacable. This worries me. So I find the attempt to bring various groups together in order to understand the different perspectives all the more remarkable. The vast majority of people recognize that both job security and climate protection are justified. That’s why there has to be a path that both sides can take. I hope that the stakeholder dialogue will build bridges.
(Note: In the stakeholder dialogues, Volkswagen managers regularly exchange views with external stakeholders on sustainability issues. The stakeholders include representatives of business partners, suppliers, NGOs, science, research, politics, associations and the sustainable capital market. The focus is currently on the transformation of the automobile industry, social sustainability and employment effects.)
In your view, what is the right way to navigate between economic and environmental concerns?
Industrial production in Germany must be retained. Otherwise, it will migrate to regions in which far lower value is placed on climate protection than here. This would harm employees as much as the environment. That’s one side. On the other side, I understand critics who say that the automobile industry has put off facing this transition for far too long. But that is over. We have ambitious targets from the EU and ambitious goals on the part of companies. That’s why I think that, in 2020, we should put the disagreements behind us and consider what our next steps should be. We should neither undermine nor outpace the climate goals. The current regulations will be demanding enough. We have to move from the climate fight to implementation.
Changing the working world also involves the aim of making family and work compatible. You were faced with the task of reconciling your roles as mother and leading politician for many years. What is the biggest challenge?
A lot of things have been put into motion over the past few years. There are better opportunities for working from home. There is greater understanding if someone leaves the office early to pick their child up from the kindergarten. Despite this, there is still more talking than implementation. For example, part-time employees are clearly disadvantaged in terms of career opportunities and pay scales. Eighty percent of these are women, whose work is thus devalued. In view of the lack of skilled labor, too, companies should ask themselves how they should deal with the potential of women working part-time. Often, women would be prepared to work 25 or 30 hours instead of 20 hours per week. But in many cases, they are not even asked.
How did you yourself experience the double burden?
As a mother working full-time, I had the feeling that you can’t talk openly about how difficult the situation is – how you are sometimes pushed to the limits of your capabilities. There are very few honest debates about this. You sense, though, that it is viewed as a weakness if you are not able to deliver a full performance. As a politician, I was always able to deliver a full performance. But we in Germany have not yet reached the point where we can say openly: I need a day for my child. In my position in the government, I tried to make other parents’ lives easier by considerably increasing the proportion of home-based work and of part-time managers in the ministry.
After leaving politics, you are facing a new beginning. Did you ever expect to be in this situation at some point?
I was always aware that such a change can happen. In fact, I had this experience very early on in my career. In 1998, I was elected to the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) for the first time – and at the next election, in 2002, I was already out again because I lacked 34 votes. I then changed career and worked for the metalworker’s union IG Metall before returning to the Bundestag in 2005. The awareness that this can happen never left me after that. However, I admit that I did not expect it in 2019.