Keeping your senior staffers

Hit by a shortage of engineers, BASF found a way to retain older workers.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all RSS FEEDS (close)
By Mina Kimes, writer-reporter

Peter Gleich, a BASF plant manager, with a mentee
Will the 'new' GM succeed?
  • Yes
  • No

(Fortune Magazine) -- With layoffs rampant, holding on to workers ought to be the least of a company's worries -- unless those employees are scientists and engineers. According to the National Science Foundation, nearly 40% of these skilled workers in the U.S. are more than 50 years old, and the pipeline of talent to replace them is shrinking. IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates predicts a 7% to 11% shortage of experienced engineers in 2011. America is not alone; industrial powerhouses Germany and Japan face similar demographic challenges.

BASF, the German chemical giant, which makes, among other products, ammonia, fertilizer, and plastics, says it has found a way to beat the crunch. The $91-billion-a-year company has been around for more than a century, and its skilled workforce of production managers, scientists, and engineers, while not quite that old, have decades of experience under their belts. By 2020 the majority of BASF's German employees will be 50 to 65 years old. "It's become apparent that we're going to hit a wall," says CFO Kurt Bock, himself a sprightly 50. BASF's demographic problem is bigger than most because it mainly operates in Germany, Japan, and the U.S., where the elderly make up an increasingly large chunk of the population.

While the company is trying to replenish its workforce from the bottom up, even sending its scientists to teach classes in elementary schools, that may only address the problem of 2050. A more pressing concern is the next decade. "If we don't deal with aging," says Hartmut Lang, BASF's HR chief, "we'll face a serious challenge." Three years ago BASF decided to create a series of programs aimed at boosting workers' longevity and productivity.

One initiative focuses simply on maintaining health. Doctors visit laboratories and plants, where they assess the physical condition of individuals who volunteer and offer them advice. Another targets the facilities themselves. In office settings, notes Lang, the company has instituted "ergonomics checks" for furniture. At the plants, managers divvy up labor among different generations to reduce stress on older employees. Peter Gleich, a plant manager in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says, "We're also looking at organization to boost productivity" -- which means putting younger and older people together in teams to take advantage of both generations' skill sets.

Yet even if senior employees work longer and better, they'll have to leave eventually -- and they'll take much of their experience with them. "For the engineers, transferring knowledge to their successors is easier said than done," says Bock. BASF encourages older staffers to take on a mentee. To ensure expertise gets passed on, BASF created teaching sessions called Wissensstafette, or knowledge relay, where older workers share their knowledge with newcomers. It also changed its compensation scheme to reward mentoring. Now 360-degree evaluations are conducted to get feedback from those being mentored -- a rare approach in Germany, where most bonuses are based solely on seniority.

If BASF can unlock the potential of its older workers, its golden years may still be ahead.  To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.15 0.00 0.00%
Facebook Inc 58.94 0.00 0.00%
General Electric Co 26.56 0.00 0.00%
Cisco Systems Inc 23.19 -0.02 -0.09%
Micron Technology In... 23.91 0.00 0.00%
Data as of Apr 17
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,408.54 -16.31 -0.10%
Nasdaq 4,095.52 9.29 0.23%
S&P 500 1,864.85 2.54 0.14%
Treasuries 2.72 0.08 3.19%
Data as of 11:48am ET
More Galleries
50 years of the Ford Mustang Take a drive down memory lane with our favorite photos of the car through the years. More
Cool cars from the New York Auto Show These are some of the most interesting new models and concept vehicles from the Big Apple's car show. More
8 CEOs who took a pay cut in 2013 Median CEO pay inched up 9% in 2013 to $13.9 million. But not everyone got a bump last year. Here are eight CEOs who missed out. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.