"A craft trade means a career"

In an interview, Meinolf Niemand, General Manager of the South Westphalia Chamber of Crafts and Trades, discusses ways to address the shortage of skilled workers.

Meinolf Niemand has been General Manager of the South Westphalia Chamber of Crafts and Trades for 13 years and will retire at the end of the year. His primary focus includes training and continuing education in the craft trades and the skilled worker shortage associated with this. His philosophy is that you have to make it very clear to everyone that training in a craft trade means a career – it means fulfilling work.

Deutsches Handwerksblatt (DHB): Mr Niemand, at the start of your tenure on the 1 October 2008 there were three training advisers, now there is a team dedicated to ensuring the supply of skilled workers with nine employees. What has changed?

Niemand: Back then there were three training advisers who, in addition to their actual work, handled the recruitment of new trainees. The team has now grown much bigger because the tasks are so varied. We have to engage with social media, we have to be active at education fairs and at parents' evenings, although how we contact people directly and the groups of people have changed. We are also working for example in traditional areas such as "migration", "no qualification without progression" or "women in the craft trades", but also on new projects such as the mobile pupil workshop.

DHB: What does this involve?

Niemand: We take demonstration objects into schools so that pupils can get a feel for the craft trades. In normal times, i.e. before the coronavirus pandemic, we run the craft trade rally. Schools are invited to this, and their pupils can work on craft trade activities at 13 to 14 workstations. At this competition there is a prize for the class fund. We use this to approach schools – lower secondary schools, secondary schools offering both lower and intermediate level school-leaving certificates and also higher secondary schools, to which we now finally have access.

DHB: I imagine that was difficult.

Niemand: That actually took years, but projects such as the training Olympiad helped to provide good contacts. The training ambassadors have been a real hit, although the project was initially viewed sceptically. We asked companies to nominate young trainees for us, and within two to three weeks in the very first year we received 144 replies! We trained these young trainees and take them with us into classrooms as training ambassadors where they talk to people in a similar age group to them.

DHB: A clever move, because they are also better at using social media than the 'old-timers'.

Niemand: Exactly! No one wants to see me on social media, but the trainees communicate with the pupils on equal terms and can explain the issues covered in a much better way than I.

DHB: The coronavirus pandemic was not helpful in this respect.

Niemand: The coronavirus pandemic obviously made it very difficult for us, although nobody was able to reach young people over this period. However, it's also important that all the players involved in training in South Westphalia actually work together well. We have an excellent relationship with our three Chambers of Industry and Commerce and work together very well with the labour administrations in the individual regions. We know that recruiting new trainees and ensuring the supply of skilled workers is a task for all of us. Thanks to our efforts, numbers are now rising, but it's not enough to cover the demand for skilled workers.

DHB: Is there a big gap?

Niemand: Like everywhere actually, we have a huge gap here in South Westphalia which has grown enormously over the last six months. When we add everything up, we come to an excess demand of 1000 training positions per year which we are unable to fill due to a lack of applicants.

DHB: Is that a lack of manpower, or are the craft trades losing out in the battle for talent?

Niemand: The clients are becoming more and more difficult. More and more needs to be done on an individual basis in the company. And if I've recruited somebody, I then have to work really hard myself to ensure that they pass the examination, to then – with great effort – be able to keep them on at the company.

DHB: Are the potential new trainees not tempted by the career opportunity of starting up their own business and being their own boss?

Niemand: In actual fact, in our Chamber District there are around 3000 companies currently waiting to be taken on. In our education and training centre in Arnsberg, we are well set up in trades where we are running master craftsman preparation courses. But even these fully attended courses are not enough to meet the demand, although interest from the new trainees is there.

DHB: So you need to start earlier, to even get skilled workers into the craft trades in the first place ...

Niemand: ... which is a key task when recruiting new trainees – making it clear that training in a craft trade means a career, all options are available to everybody. But it's also about fulfilling and interesting work. Surveys of trainees have shown this, producing some astonishing results. The apprentices are proud in the evening when they see what they have achieved over the course of the day. All the underlying conditions obviously need to be right such as income and working atmosphere. However for the young people, it’s mainly about the sense of fulfilment through the work, we have to make more of that.

DHB: You have always dedicated yourself to the education and training sector. What would you say are the milestones of your tenure?

Niemand: One of them is certainly that we have been able to focus on education and training activities in South Westphalia. Our annual investments mean we have an education and training centre with an excellent set-up, with 14 occupations, and we've built up a good reputation. Having said that, we have further innovation projects in the pipeline which we need to get on with given the advancing digitalisation, modernisation and the merging of the trades. Major investment is therefore due over the coming years. However that also extends beyond the education and training sector. As a Chamber we have to offer our services to companies as a general service provider.

DHB: There's also a pressure to justify this: What does the Chamber collect fees for?

Niemand: Yes that's right, but this relates to the entire consultancy service, from business technical consultancy, QM consultancy, marketing consultancy, digitalization and training consultancy. And here I think the team we've got together doing this work is a great team. Our emergency consultancy in particular, which took place over the period of the coronavirus pandemic, showed companies how important the Chamber is – and our entire organisation showed an outstanding level of commitment to this. And now this is continuing because those affected are seeking advice due to repayment demands. In the area of education and training, we managed to have courses continuing almost seamlessly online – and we were also active during the flood disaster, although the numbers affected were not as high as they were in the Eiffel region.

DHB: So, what challenges is the Chamber facing now?

Niemand: Digitalisation of course, and also the question of how we can take our service to companies. New channels of communication will also certainly be needed for this in order to again have more direct access. We must also not lose contact with policymakers. Even we as a Chamber have a demand for skilled workers, and we simply cannot meet this. Particularly in the area of education and training. From next year we will also be providing training in air conditioning technology in the technical area. Our portfolio will then cover everything concerned with "the home" in our vocational education and training centre. That makes it a seamless portfolio of offers. In light of digitalization and networking, being able to make such an offer is unbeatable. In terms of business, that will definitely give us an enormous boost.

DHB: When you now retire at the end of the year, will you not be a bit sorry to be leaving at such a fascinating time?

Niemand: I believe you always leave with mixed feelings. Yes, these times are fascinating, but you also need to hand over the baton at the right time. In my view, the organisation is set up well, and I do not wish to initiate any projects which my successor can only continue. As ever, it is important to work together closely with voluntary staff as only in this way can a Chamber function well, and obviously also with a great team. Here in Arnsberg we had, and have, a motivated team which pulls together, which relates to the employer and moves ideas forward – I will definitely miss that.

The interview was conducted by Stefan Buhren.

Source: handwerksblatt.de (magazine of the skilled crafts sector in Germany), revised by iMOVE, April 2022