Shortage of skilled workers in the bicycle industry: rethinking is required

The bicycle industry is regarded as a future-proof and exciting employer. But many companies complain that they cannot find suitable personnel. How can that be and what can you do specifically as an industry and as an individual company? There are different answers to this – examples can be found at the EUROBIKE CAREER CENTER.

When asked about the skilled labour shortage in the bicycle industry, Gunnar Schmidt likes to quote a 15th-century German folk song. The lyrics translate as: “There once were two royal children, Whose love was like none ever seen, But they couldn't come together, There was too much water between.” Applied to bicycle retailers, it means: people are keen on the bicycle, but the trade is unable to find new staff because there are too many problems within the sector. The result: a battle for the best minds and talent. “Cannibalisation is already starting to set in. Retailers are paying job-switching premiums to poach the best personnel. That’s a move in the wrong direction. With the greater shift to production in Germany, the contest for the best minds is set to get even fiercer in the future,” explains Schmidt, who coaches bicycle dealers, which is why he is arguing for new solutions.

With the greater shift to production in Germany, the contest for the best minds is set to get even fiercer in the future.

The skilled crafts are running out of personnel

The raw figures show that bicycle retailers are not alone in facing a shortage of skilled labour. According to a study by the Kompetenzzentrum Fachkräftesicherung, a centre for securing skilled personnel, there is a shortfall of almost 65,000 specialists within the skilled crafts. The Zentralverband des Deutschen Handwerks (ZDH), the confederation of skilled crafts in Germany is reporting as many as 250,000 unfilled vacancies. At the same time, a profession in the skilled crafts is seen as immune to crises – as the COVID-19 situation currently demonstrates. In recent years, though, crafts professions have become increasingly unattractive – particularly among the young – and, unfortunately, the occupation of bicycle mechatronics engineer is no exception, but is in fact affected to an even greater extent than many other sectors. Despite booming sales figures, a mere 1,245 apprenticeships were taken up in the bicycle sector in 2021. In the ranking of training occupations, the two-wheel mechatronics engineer – motorcycle and bicycle combined – lies in 75th place. By way of comparison: 20,697 people took up an apprenticeship to become an automotive mechatronics engineer, putting this occupation in 3rd place. 

Better pay, more work?

This, however, immediately reveals a problem within the industry: technically it is far too close to the lucrative automotive and motorcycle industries. Although the personnel shortage now means that the bicycle industry is scoring points with higher salaries – this in turn is associated with longer working hours. Bicycle mechanics therefore still need to demonstrate a high level of passion for their product if they are to generate long-term enthusiasm for this career path. Tobias Hempelmann, Vice-Chairman of the Zweiradhandelsverband (VDZ), raises an interesting point: “Many shop owners have a tendency towards self-exploitation and demand this from their employees as well. Yet a workshop does not have to be fully staffed on Saturdays in summer, as a duty roster of emergency cover is sufficient.”

Work-life balance more important than money

A study by Xing E-Recruiting shows the gap between the ideas of owners and employees on this topic. Human resources managers believe that a better salary and strong competition from other employers are the key reasons for staff changing jobs. Reasons given by the employees, on the other hand, are a better work-life balance, a desire for more competent management and a more exciting occupation. Companies that recognise this change in requirements and react accordingly, so the study reports, stand a greater chance of winning the competition for talent.

 

Improve internal organisation

According to Hempelmann, this is why it is important for a major rethink to take place in the bicycle trade: “Owners should not be looking for the most elegant titanium alloy, but making sure the right processes are in place within their business. This is where they have to be prepared to take the plunge and change their attitude completely.” Uwe Wöll, Managing Director of the association Verbund Service und Fahrrad (VSF), takes a similar view: “Fundamentally, we have to ask ourselves whether we have a skilled labour shortage or shortcomings elsewhere.” Mechanics should not have to help out in sales, answer the telephone or take charge of the collection and delivery service. On the other hand, sales assistants could also undergo training in basic mechanical tasks in order to take over simple servicing activities. With a little restructuring, this would enable a different climate to be created within companies and a better work-life balance.

Fundamentally, we have to ask ourselves whether we have a skilled labour shortage or shortcomings elsewhere?

Make better use of women’s potential

And that in turn opens up new opportunities for young people: the difficult working times, especially the weekend work in the spring and peak summer, make the bicycle an unattractive area of work for parents in particular. Experts repeatedly provide examples of young people who enter the industry full of enthusiasm but then ultimately turn their back on it when they start a family.  Attractive working time models and better reconciliation of work and family life can provide a remedy here. In addition, it is also important to inspire more women. At present, more than 90 per cent of those taking up an apprenticeship are male. As this is technical career, it has become a firmly established belief over decades that the bicycle industry must be dominated by men – and there are also many people who have no idea that there are far more career opportunities than just that of bicycle mechanic. Recent years have witnessed a change that has brought more women into the sector. Positive feedback enthusing about mixed teams keeps coming from industry. Yet this also calls for women designers, engineers and product developers – of whom there have been far too few until now but who would nevertheless have great potential. Women could help to bring new aspects and ideas into the industry and take a more holistic view of the topic – and this does not just apply to the sale of bike apparel.

It’s a good time for new structures

The bike industry is currently at an important point: the sale of high-value e-bikes means that in turn much greater value is attached to service and workshop activities. An efficiently organised service increases revenues but also needs investment. Not only in new tools, but also in personnel, training and organisation. Improving processes though, according to Hempelmann, places demands on the manufacturers and suppliers. They have to work on modernising their structures in service and warranty management. “If I need a spare part in the workshop, I must be able to order it directly from the bike manufacturer and not have to look for the supplier or wholesaler first. That wears down the staff, takes time and has a demoralising effect,” Hemplemann continues. The result is an exodus of skilled workers.

Modularise training

In order to prevent this, it is now reportedly time to reform the rigid training structures in the skilled crafts so as to present better chances of career development for young people and those making a sideways move. This is why VSF is working on a new modular apprenticeship system which is able to provide a central guideline for both young people and career changers. “We want to design a more academic training system,” says Uwe Wöll justifying the move. In a similar way to Bachelor and Master courses at universities, prospective students would be able to take different modules and thus obtain qualifications for the next stage in the training course. At the same time, however, it would be possible to deploy them as fully fledged employees in some areas during their apprenticeship, which would relieve the burden on the other staff. In this way, Wöll explains, trainees could, for example, complete a module in wheel building and then be responsible for this task in the workshop, even though they would still be lacking the expertise required for servicing suspension forks. “For those making a sideways move, for instance, we will also offer modules with only the basic terms so as to provide a low entry-threshold for the industry,” Wöll explains. However, the concept has met with resistance from the craft trade associations and the guilds. Nevertheless, Wöll regards this an important step in making the sector more attractive as a career. Changes in the training in particular have been taking place far too slowly.

Seize the opportunities offered by the EUROBIKE CAREER CENTER

Nevertheless, Tobias Hemplemann believes that specialist retailers are also obliged to at least offer training places: “You can’t keep saying that there are no people to be found, instead you actually have to put in the time yourself.” Realistically, though, individual retailers have little chance of seizing the initiative in advertising to recruit young apprentices. At present, they are under too much pressure in both workshop and sales. “This is why comprehensive changes are needed,” Wöll is convinced. In this respect, EUROBIKE with its CAREER CENTER offers an important platform for inspiring people to enter the bike industry. Talks and various key topics will present a range of careers and new trends. There is still too little awareness of the industry’s achievements, in terms of climate protection and the green mobility transformation. “The industry has never gone in for presenting itself and is still doing far too little in this field. We have to publicise the industry as a whole and show how great and diverse we are,” pleads Wöll, while also appealing to other associations to seize the current opportunities and advertise for the bicycle. Only then will the two parties eventually find a way to come together.