Navigating labour shortages & sustainability with a tight-knit team

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We caught up with Gregor Bochynek, Managing Director of KAEFER Industrie in Germany, to talk about current issues such as ESG, labour shortages and how to be an attractive employer.

Gregor, can you please describe KAEFER Industrie in three words?

1. Industrial service provider
2. Problem solver
3. Team spirit

1,018 employees at 24 locations across the country offer a broad portfolio of industrial services. What sets us apart is that we go far beyond the traditional trades. Our employees are skilled craftsmen who can do much more than ‘just’ insulation, mechanics, coating or welding. We are problem solvers for our customers, providing manual services where required.

In this way we have established ourselves as a reliable partner, taking on tasks left and right. That’s what sets us apart!

More interestingly, we do this with our own employees, which makes us unique in the German market. You might think it’s difficult to build a tight-knit team of over a thousand people, but we have a real team spirit that is a fundamental part of our culture. Flat hierarchies, regular communication, little vanity, high regard for others and their abilities, respect – these are not empty words. We also have a lot of fun together, and my experience tells me that having fun makes it easier to succeed.

Apart from this problem-solving mentality and team culture, what characterises KAEFER Industrie?

We’re passionate about talking, sharing, and communicating at all levels – our own employee app, used by more than 70% of our workforce, is a good example. Many employees use it to talk about their projects, sites and what they’ve achieved. This has a real domino effect, encouraging dialogue across locations and hierarchies.

As part of our “Safety Culture Plus” programme, site teams meet monthly to discuss topics such as health and safety, quality, efficiency, and sustainability. Positive and negative observations are collected and uploaded to our app. Input from all sites is collected each month, summarised, and sent back to all sites. This way you learn a lot even without seeing each other, creating a real community.

Last but not least, we regularly organise an operational conference: 150 site and project managers from all over Germany come together to learn about technical innovations, special processes, or materials. From 2024, we will be forming site pairs – site and project managers from one site will visit their counterparts at another site, e.g. the waste incineration plant in Berlin will visit the waste incineration plant in Herne, to exchange best practice and new ideas. We have already tried this very successfully with branch managers in 2023. Yes, it costs time and therefore money, but it creates a living network and a real exchange of expertise and practice.

You invest a lot in your employees. This brings us directly to a major problem for most craft businesses in Europe and beyond: the shortage of skilled labour. Especially companies like KAEFER that prefer to work with their own employees.

Actually, the term ‘skills shortage’ is inaccurate, we should be talking about a labour shortage. It’s not just a problem for service providers like us – it’s a problem for all industrial companies, including our customers. All these companies need people who are willing to do manual work. We cannot train enough young people in the required dimensions and professions. In the long run, only those companies that can provide capacity will be able to convince customers.

As labour becomes increasingly scarce within the European Union, there will inevitably be an increase in the number of sub-contractors providing manpower from outside the EU. Companies like ours have limited influence over factors such as immigration policy or the overall attractiveness of our country to foreign workers – these are predominantly governmental domains. Our response to this challenge has therefore been to establish a strategic subcontractor management system in 2020.

By fostering strong partnerships with strategic subcontractors, who often source labour from countries such as Serbia, New Macedonia, Georgia, Mexico or Ghana, we aim to maintain the necessary workforce levels. Our focus is not only on maintaining well-managed relationships, but also on ensuring legal compliance as we navigate this global approach to meeting our customers’ needs.

We have also hired a manager for new technologies: any new application, be it technology or equipment, that helps fewer or less trained people to work more easily or efficiently is beneficial. Sooner or later, customers will have to cope with lower productivity because of labour shortages and reduced technical expertise to operate the equipment. We want to give them the best possible support.

So, that’s why you take such great care in providing opportunities for your employees?

Absolutely, supporting our team is something we take great pride in. Our approach is rooted in a culture of challenge and encouragement, which is essential to fostering a dynamic and proactive workforce.

One of our key initiatives is the Management Trainee Programme, which enables entrepreneurial individuals to run projects as if they were their own small businesses. This hands-on experience, combined with our flat hierarchies, paves the way for significant career progression, as evident in our history of employees progressing from fitters to managing directors. People with the ‘doer gene’ make a career with us.

Our Blue-Collar Training Programme is another key aspect of our support system. It has been remarkably successful, with 300 enrolments in one year, exceeding our target of a 15-20% training rate. The effectiveness of the programme lies not only in its uniqueness, but also in our straightforward approach. Employees not only attend these courses, but they also actively engage with and benefit from them. We really believe in the intrinsic value of this investment in our workforce. This commitment is also visible externally – we get a lot of interest and discussion at events and exhibitions.

Can you highlight another “hot topic” for your industry?

In addition to the labour shortage, sustainability or ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) is the other big issue.

The pre-qualification process with customers is now an even higher hurdle because of the ESG requirements. On the one hand, this opens the market for us as professional companies and makes it more difficult for smaller companies, but it also means a lot of administrative work that an organisation has to adapt to.

As KAEFER Industrie, we are planning to voluntarily publish a separate sustainability report in 2024 (KAEFER has published one for the Group since 2011). This requires a lot of additional effort. Which brings us back to the essence of our success: recognising that behind every achievement there is an individual who was once encouraged to believe in his or her abilities, especially in challenging times. This culture of support and mutual trust is essential.

We’re going to end with these words. Thank you for your time and your insights.

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