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Packaging industry fears structural shortage of skilled workers

November 9, 2018

71 percent of packaging companies are unable to fill vacancies. However, compensation is not the reason companies can’t find employees.

The paper and board converting industry is concerned about the next generation of skilled workers. “It is a competitive situation for the best and brightest,” said Georg Dieter Fischer, Chairman of the trade association Propak, in an interview with the APA. A study commissioned by the trade association came to the conclusion that 71 percent of companies in the industry have vacancies.

The industry representative expects the demand for skilled workers to continue to rise and for unskilled workers to decline. “We still have the opportunity to streamline production. In other words, we are on the way to the Smart Factory. We will be able to set up more and more robotic systems that perform auxiliary tasks. But of course we need the skilled operator at the machine.”

As a result, there will be fewer people working in the factories of the future; Fischer spoke in concrete terms of 20 percent fewer.

Continuous education and training are of the utmost importance: “People that stop learning, that stop developing, will be replaced with a robot,” Fischer said. Here the most important approach is an apprenticeship with or without graduation.

This trend is already visible in the Propak study: in the 2012 survey 30 percent of the staff were skilled workers without an apprenticeship certificate, in 2018 it was only 12 percent. By contrast, the proportion of staff with an apprenticeship certificate increased from 55 to 61 percent. Among university graduates, the percentage even tripled – to 15 percent.

The shortage of skilled personnel is not so much an acute problem currently due to the good economic situation, but rather a creeping structural and demographic development. "We'll make it, but we can already see that we're running out of skilled personnel," said Fischer, who is particularly concerned about worker quality.

In Austria – different from the Czech Republic or Poland – no orders have yet been lost due to staff shortages. Currently the increase in orders can be handled using temporary workers and overtime. However, this flexibility was bought at a high price because of these extra costs. The 12-hour day is not that important in this case. “We are not the ones who say we absolutely need the twelve hours; in principle we need flexibility throughout the year,” says Fischer. “We have been fighting for a very long time to be able to distribute normal working hours, whether eight or ten hours, over the year without getting more expensive.”

„Don’t belong to the low-cost factories”

Fischer emphasized it is not the monetary compensation that is responsible for companies not finding employees. From a salary perspective, the collective agreement is in the midfield of the industry: “We don’t belong to the low-cost factories, we also overpay and reward qualifications and commitment.” Ultimately, however, the industry must also be internationally competitive. "Price is the benchmark," Fischer said. Moreover, for a company to be attractive, compensation is not that important. The working atmosphere and working environment are more relevant.

The issue of quality of life is also becoming increasingly important for employees. "We notice that the issue of work-life balance comes up very early in job interviews and that concrete demands are made," Fischer explained. There has been a change in attitude towards the job among the younger generation. According to Fischer, he himself was convinced a few years ago that there could be no comeback in the company after a break, but is now beginning to rethink that position.

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