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Slowed down public transport?

"We do not have a skilled labor problem in public transport, we have a labor problem"

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In conversation with Harald Kraus, Labor Director of Dortmunder Stadtwerke AG (DSW21)

Portrait of Harald Kraus, a smiling man in a suit

© DSW21

Although public transport has been an established system for getting people from A to B for over 150 years, it has long been treated rather neglected in the transport transition discourse. How do you explain the fact that it is only relatively recently that more attention has been paid to it again?

To understand this, we need to look back to the last millennium. In the 1990s, there was a debate about local transport and public transport in general. At that time, the prevailing opinion was that transport was a competitive factor. It was discussed whether there was still a public service and whether private companies should not also be active in areas of public service. In this context, many transport companies, inspired by the initiatives of the then Federal Government at Deutsche Bahn, which was still called Bundesbahn at the time, also said for local transport: this sector must become competitive. Ultimately, this means that everything that does not appear profitable must be reduced.

If you look at the development in the annual reports of the transport companies, you will see that the number of employees has fallen across the board. The workforce has been greatly reduced over decades of restructuring. In addition, collective wage agreements were concluded to secure this liberalization and competitiveness. These tariffs were developed for local transport. The mindset of the entire industry was: we have to reduce staff, we have to be more efficient. I think that's why local public transport was neglected, simply because it caused costs and didn't fit in with the ordoliberal thinking of the social mainstream at the time.

There used to be workers, but no money. Now there is money, but not enough workers, as jobs were cut when there was no money. What does the funding situation look like now?

We are currently experiencing an absurd situation: there is a consensus that we urgently need more public transport for the transport transition. Cities such as Zurich, Vienna and Copenhagen are often cited as role models. A lot of money has been invested there to improve public transport. Things are different here. Although the Deutschlandticket has simplified ticket structures, it has also led to a change in the way local public transport is financed. The losses are increasing. The Deutschlandticket is a great socio-political measure, but it has not led to us gaining many new customers. Some have upgraded their previous season ticket to a cheaper price, which is understandable. In Dortmund, the cheapest monthly ticket for the city area cost 64 euros. Now I pay 49 euros and can travel all over the country. Great from the user's perspective, but the new model doesn't necessarily help to ease the financial situation.

And finances are not the only problem that public transport has to deal with...

Exactly. Let's assume that money doesn't play a role: Then we still have far too few staff. There is not only a shortage of skilled workers, but a general shortage of labor. There is hardly a job family in which we don't have problems. Demographic change is contributing to the fact that the baby boomer generation is retiring, while fewer young people are entering the labor market. According to studies by the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, between 330,000 and 400,000 workers will leave the labor market every year until 2035. These figures already take into account effects such as digitalization and other substitution effects. The labor market is therefore shrinking, and this affects not only our industry, but the labor market as a whole.

However, it is particularly problematic for us that the proportion of academics in the overall labor market is increasing, while the proportion of people with lower qualifications is decreasing. We don't have rocket scientists in the transport service, but mainly people with school or vocational training. This proportion is falling as a percentage of the overall labor market, which is also shrinking. So we have to contend with two effects: the general shortage of skilled workers and the fact that the framework conditions in the transport service are not attractive for today's employees. After all, buses drive fixed routes. Compared to similar professions such as the cab industry, there is therefore less variety. There are restrictions such as the limited opportunity to go to the toilet, and working from home is certainly not an option. We therefore need to take a close look at how we can make the job more attractive.

Let's take stock of the situation. What are the advantages of a job in public transport?

One important point is that our sector has a major advantage over other industries: What we do, particularly in local public transport, serves the local people where we ourselves live and work. In local rail passenger transport, of course, it also serves the mobility of many people and the climate goals. Our work is not geared towards the interests of hedge funds, but we are an industry that actively works for society. We have much better working conditions than food delivery services, for example, because we are all bound by collective agreements and are part of the municipal public services. It is unfortunate that it is often not recognized that we as an employer have a different DNA when it comes to acting socially.

What are you doing to improve the inadequate personnel situation?

There is no one way. Short-term measures could include, for example, employing staff beyond retirement age. This requires special occupational health care and, of course, the willingness to continue working. We don't expect hundreds or thousands of people to work longer, but in our industry, especially in the transport sector, we often have career changers who at some point did something else and because that didn't work out, they ended up retiring. For them, our offer means that they can regain a professional foothold, which has a positive effect on their pension calculation. However, our aim is not to permanently raise the retirement age for everyone, but to meet individual requests.

We are specifically looking for employees abroad. The VDV Academy, for example, is planning targeted international employee recruitment with over 4000-5000 people per year. Skills such as driving school training and language courses are to be taught abroad. Our aim is to prepare potential employees for their work in the best possible way and to take their needs into account. This also applies to the families who are often involved: We also try to offer apprenticeships to their children. This is the only way to ensure long-term integration into the company and the new environment.

That brings us straight to the next topic. What is the industry doing to improve the work-life balance?

If you look at the figures from the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, you can see that the proportion of women in employment is around five percentage points lower than that of men. This means that there are differences in the labor market. I don't want to start a social debate here, but it has to be said that many women in our society still have the double burden of family and career. This is another reason why we need to enable flexible working. This means that we must have part-time models and duty rosters that meet the needs of employees who are parents. This affects women in particular, although I believe that this has nothing to do with gender, but is simply a labor market reality. We are discussing in the industry how we can design more attractive duty rosters that offer more freedom. One example of this is digital roster exchange platforms. We are also in talks with manufacturers to discuss the development of rostering software that takes greater account of individual wishes. The parameters of the duty rosters are often based on the timetables and less on the needs of the employees.

We have already mentioned that finances are a cause for concern. But wouldn't better remuneration be a decisive factor in recruiting staff?

It is difficult. If wage settlements are unattractive for driving service employees, we "save" twice: wage costs increase and at the same time we lose employees, which leads to even lower wage costs as not all positions are filled. This is counterproductive. As a municipal company with limited financial resources, we are chronically underfunded. We are in a discount battle that we are not fully reimbursed for. At the same time, we believe that as an employer we have to offer attractive remuneration. We will never be able to pay as much as the private sector. Nevertheless, we must ensure that pay in the transport sector is not too low. In NRW, we have a basic wage of over 3,000 euros gross for driving service employees, which will apply from April. There are also bonuses for night and Sunday work. It's not the best-paid job, but it's still well paid. Working as a driver is a responsible job and the remuneration of 3000 euros is a plus. We also offer company pension schemes, but that doesn't interest many young people who want to look for a new job in a few years' time. It's difficult, but we try to adapt.

A good work-life balance plays an important role for employees these days. How can this be reconciled with the low staffing levels?

Last spring, we had nationwide collective bargaining for local transport, in which Verdi demanded additional days off. Reducing working hours is definitely an issue and we understand the desire for a better work-life balance. The problem is that we are currently reducing our timetable because either employees are ill or positions remain unfilled. It is difficult to work less as we are already reaching our capacity limits. Verdi argues that the high absenteeism rate is due to the high workload and that relief is needed. It is a difficult situation. In the last four years, we have hired 100 new drivers in Dortmund to reduce the individual workload, but of course that doesn't solve the structural problem.

How do you assess the future development of public transport in view of the possible introduction of autonomous vehicles in normal operation? Does it still make sense to get involved in driving services?

We believe that autonomous or fully automated driving is the future. Personally, I think that due to the high susceptibility to errors at level 5, it is more likely to be fully automated driving, i.e. level 4. This would mean that we would need significantly fewer drivers. However, I don't believe that local public transport can switch to autonomous or fully automated driving across the board so quickly. We have buses that have a certain service life and have been subsidized, which means that they have to run for a set period of time, some for 12 years. Furthermore, if autonomous or fully automated driving is introduced, smaller vehicles would probably be used for fine-area development rather than operating large bus routes autonomously, as we already have the structures in place for this.

So enough staff are still needed in the transport service?

I am convinced of this. The transport transition requires the expansion of local transport. At a conservative estimate, we will need 110,000 new employees by 2030, especially in the transport sector. A more ambitious approach would even require 170,000 to 180,000 new employees. The introduction of autonomous vehicles could develop over the next 20 to 25 years. New areas of employment could enable more flexible working models without the need to immediately choose between autonomous driving and drivers. The development will be organic, but it will happen.

That sounds exciting, but also uncertain... Are you optimistic about the future of public transport?

Yes, definitely. Otherwise I wouldn't work here. The CO2 pollution caused by transportation is a clear indication that there must and will be more on-demand transportation and sharing systems in the future. Nevertheless, we will continue to need long-distance transport, rail and regional transport and local public transport as important pillars of mobility. I do not believe that we will return to motorized private transport. Although I sometimes wonder what century I have landed in when I look at politics, realistically there is no way around the transport revolution. Fortunately, there are already some great initiatives and ideas that trade unions and transport associations are discussing together. Coalitions are forming that are much more effective than everyone working on their own. It's really good that trade unions are not just upholding the old belief in growth, but are increasingly entering into qualitative discussions in order to move issues forward. I think that's really good.

Thank you very much for the open and interesting conversation!


David O'Neill & Janina Zogass