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Dealing with an Aging Workforce the BMW Way

Strange as it may be to contemplate at a time when the unemployment rate remains so high, there is still a looming labor supply problem for many companies on the horizon—one caused by a graying workforce.

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It's no secret that the population—and therefore the workforce—in many countries is aging, and that companies are struggling to adapt to some of the changes that reality necessitates.

And those changes are likely to have a particular effect on companies that have traditionally relied on being able to replace aging workers with younger models.

One such company is German auto giant BMW, which—s reported in a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment—is facing a particularly acute age-related crisis in its home country in the coming years. Some of the problems the firm is facing will be typical to many: while aging workers have more experience and knowledge, they also tend to have reduced physical abilities (a problem, say, on a BMW production line), poorer eyesight (which increases the risk of error), and an increased risk of work-related illness or injury (particularly in job with a high physical demand).

BMW responded to this by experimenting with one of its production lines—typically places that require more youthful workers who can withstand the rigors of the workplace. The experiment: the firm raised the average age of one line to 47—which will be the overall average just seven years from now—and then asked the workers what the company could do to tailor the working environment to better suit their needs.

Based on that feedback, the company made around 70 improvements, including improving some of its tools and processes, installing extra furniture—particularly chairs and stretching areas—and even provided an industrial-sized magnifying glass.

While it's not surprising that the experiment produced results—what employees can't suggest ways to improve their workplace?—there were still a couple of eye-opening findings. Attendance and sickness rates improved—likely a result of the increase in comfort—while productivity rose and the rate of defects "dropped to zero" (emphasis added). That's right: it turns out that by considering the employee experience in the workplace, the company improved the performance of its employees. Even more surprising: the cost of the experiment was the relatively small sum of $50,000—a drop in the bucket for a firm the size of BMW, especially if it results in increased productivity and cost savings through defect reduction.

The key takeaway for any business facing a similar situation: the aging trend isn't going away.

By taking a leaf out of BMW's book and getting ahead of the crisis, you can tailor many of your processes to your workforce. Which might work out a lot better than having to sunset a bunch of experienced, reliable employees only to have to hire and train a whole bunch more.

You can watch the story about BMW here.

Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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