Employees of several transport companies in North Rhine-Westphalia stopped work last week and temporarily paralyzed traffic in individual cities. In addition to the strike, tram and bus drivers have another means of exerting pressure in the negotiations: the industry is already lacking staff everywhere. The pressure on employers to make their employees’ work more attractive is all the greater. In other federal states such as Berlin, more attractive working conditions were the core theme of the recently concluded collective bargaining round there.

Time is running out. The shortage of skilled workers in the industry is expected to worsen significantly in the next few years. Four out of ten bus and tram drivers in Germany are older than 55 and will be retiring in the next few years. This emerges from a study by the Competence Center for Securing Skilled Workers (Kofa) of the employer-related Institute of German Economy (IW), which was recently published. “More than 54,500 bus and tram drivers are leaving the job market in the foreseeable future. In no other professional field is the proportion of employees who are about to retire so large,” said study author Jurek Tiedemann.

3,600 positions are vacant

Passengers are already feeling the effects of the lack of staff. In surveys by the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), every second company recently stated that they had “at least temporarily restricted the timetable for personnel reasons,” said the chairman of the association’s human resources committee, Harald Kraus, to the German Press Agency. The most prominent example of this is the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG), which has had to limit the number of public buses it offers for around two years.

Last year, the occupational group of bus and tram drivers recorded the largest increase in the shortage of skilled workers. Almost 3,600 positions could not be filled with suitably qualified candidates, which was 89 percent more than in the previous year. According to study author Tiedemann, this can also be attributed to an increased need for personnel as a result of the mobility transition. Across Germany there are currently around 137,300 employees subject to social security contributions who work as bus and tram drivers. “The problem is: Significantly fewer young employees are moving in than older ones are retiring,” said Tiedemann.

This could also jeopardize the transport transition in the medium term. In order for more people to get on buses and trains, the supply would have to increase at some point. But there is currently no talk of expanding supply, emphasizes Harald Kraus from VDV: “The industry has so far been able to avoid noticeable cuts in supply. But we are currently fighting to maintain the status quo in the timetable.”

Experts recommend various measures to combat the shortage of skilled workers. Employers should address older people more specifically when advertising jobs. In addition, it makes sense to create incentives with age-appropriate work design in order to retain employees longer – be it through an ergonomic workplace, health management offers, flexible working hours and home office options. The proportion of employed people between 55 and 64 has recently increased. In 2023 it was 57 percent, in 2013 it was 43 percent.

The transport companies are already “pulling out all the stops” when looking for personnel, said VDV expert Kraus. “For example, by making it easier for career changers, refugees or young people to get started.” The industry is also trying to attract more women to the profession and to “point out the advantages in terms of safety and climate protection” to the younger generation.

Transport transition requires 110,000 new employees

Transport companies like the Rheinbahn know the problem of young people well. In the Düsseldorf company, which has a total of 3,500 employees, one in three transport service employees will retire in the next few years. “This is an attractive career prospect, especially for those making a career change. Through our driving training, we can enable people to learn a socially recognized profession and take on a responsible task in three to six months,” said board spokeswoman Annette Grabbe.

As an incentive, the Rheinbahn offers a permanent employment contract, pays the full salary during the driver training and also covers the costs of the driver’s license during the bus training. According to the company, there are currently around 100 people who are 67 or older and who work as mini-jobbers on Rheinbahn buses or trains. The Essen Ruhrbahn is also trying to keep employees in their jobs longer. Last year, a company agreement was concluded that sets out the framework conditions for employment beyond standard retirement.

According to a survey by the VDV, up to 8,000 drivers would have to be hired to compensate for the age-related departure of employees and to maintain the status quo. For the transport transition, a further 110,000 employees will have to be hired nationwide by 2030.

The federal government recently relaxed the regulations in order to attract more non-EU citizens to the labor market. On March 1st, the skilled worker immigration law came into force. People from third countries will be able to work in Germany in the future if they have at least two years of professional experience and a professional or university degree recognized by the state in their country of origin. You do not have to have any training recognized in Germany.

New collective agreements with better working conditions are currently being concluded in more and more federal states. Companies and unions alike hope that this will attract more people to work in public transport.