RASTATT, Germany: Meet Emil Kniel, who is a “Space Cowboy.”
No, the 62-year-old engineer from Rastatt, in southwestern Germany, did not star alongside Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones or Donald Sutherland in the 2000 Hollywood film of the same name about four retired astronauts who are sent into space again.
But taking its inspiration from that film’s premise, German automaker Daimler has set up a “Space Cowboy” scheme, a pool of around 600 former staff members whom it has asked to come back out of retirement to impart their invaluable experience and expertise to younger generations.
It is an idea that is being taken up and copied by other companies around Germany.
“Being retired from one day to the next isn’t easy,” admits Kniel, who spent almost his entire working life at Daimler.
He helped build the Rastatt plant close to the French border in 1992 and was subsequently employed there for more than 20 years. He is still proud of his employee’s pass carrying the number 430.
The engineer took early retirement in April, but joined the Space Cowboys scheme just a month later.
“I work three days a week . . . it’s an ideal transition,” he said.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
People who are finding it difficult to adjust to retirement can be offered fixed-term missions of between six and nine months in areas such as production, research and development, or IT.
In return for a wage indexed to their former salary, Daimler can tap into their deep knowledge of the company’s working processes.
“One of the core aims of the initiative is to transfer skills to the younger generation in order to keep them in the company,” said Christina Joos of Daimler’s personnel department.
In close coordination with the carmaker’s works council, Daimler has built up a pool of hundreds of “senior experts” who have undertaken 260 missions since the initiative was launched in 2013.
Experienced and unflappable
In Rastatt, Kniel is in charge of a small team tasked with adapting the factory to the needs of its ageing workforce.
The team, which includes a 23-year-old student, is looking into systems where the workers can remain seated at the assembly line, instead of having to stand.
“The younger colleagues bring with them a certain dynamism, a certain levity. And they have absolutely no problem with new media.”
But the retirees “are people with a lot of experience, a certain unflappability, and a bigger view of things,” said Kniel.
At the end of the day, “it’s the mix that counts.”
Daimler is not the only company to launch such a scheme.
Bosch, the maker of car parts and household electrical goods, was one of the pioneers, setting one up in 1999. It has around 1,600 retired experts on its books who can be dispatched all around Germany or even further afield, individually or in teams.
The mail order giant Otto launched its own scheme in 2012 and has a portfolio of around 50 former employees it can turn, for example, when replacing an old in-house IT system that only a few people are familiar with.
“The retirees aren’t taking jobs away from anyone else,” said Otto spokeswoman Jennifer Buchholz.
“These aren’t full-time positions, but fixed-term projects for which very specific knowledge is required. A lot of the time, no-one else in the company or from outside the company has such knowledge,” she said.
The scheme allows the former employees to top up their pensions. But “that’s not the sole motivation,” said Buchholz.
“The feeling of being useful and passing on skills is just as important,” she said.
Nevertheless, the powerful IG Metall labor union remains skeptical.
“It will never be a wide-scale phenomenon,” said Roman Zitzelsberger, head of IG Metall’s branch in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the regional state that is home to both Daimler and Bosch.
“And it certainly won’t cover the shortage of qualified workers in the future,” he said.
Germany’s rapidly ageing population and low birth rate are slowly depleting its pool of skilled labor and the shortage of qualified workers is projected to rise to 1.8 million in 2020.