The Berlin Transport Company Tips its Gender Imbalance
Exiting the U-8 subway train at Alexanderplatz, I had to backtrack against the crowd to do a double-take of a poster declaring “School was yesterday” next to the image of a young woman removing a grubby, grease-stained glove. Below her picture, the yellow band and logo made it clear that this was a message from the Berlin Transport Company (BVG), which operates the city’s buses, trams, subways, and ferries.
In the series of six posters aimed to encourage women to apply to their trainee program, one pokes fun at stereotypes by showing a young woman trading in the plastic tiara of her childhood to don a uniform cap. Another woman is shown against a workshop backdrop with a double-entendre tag line that means both “keeps the electricity flowing” or “keeps things interesting.” A fourth promises the future bus driver that her “guy will take notice” of her new line of work.
The ads are mildly confrontational yet lighthearted. They are a fun way to catch the eye of a new audience. These young women are challenging their peers to take on jobs traditionally held by men, as drivers, engineers, and mechanics. They are also shown competing successfully for high-skilled, well-paying technical jobs that promise long-term careers in public transportation. What I did not know when I first saw them is that these young women are actual trainees, which makes the effort all the more authentic.
Ausbildung in Germany
Apprenticeships and vocational training in Germany are linchpins for integrating young workers into Europe’s leading economy. As Berlin’s fifth largest employer, the BVG reinvests hundreds of millions of Euros in the city by paying wages and building and maintaining physical infrastructure to help keep the region of 5 million residents moving. Lately, BVG’s leadership has targeted the gender composition of its work force for change, and its provocative poster series is part of the effort to capture potential female recruits’ attention.
Germany has a strong tradition of “Ausbildung” (vocational training) as a well-respected, competitive pathway into a wide variety of technical careers and crafts. Most private companies and public offices support student trainees each year. Local chambers of commerce set standards on what an industry-specific trainee curriculum looks like and then administer final exams. Skills are transferable nationally. Of course, the BVG hopes that most participants remain in Berlin. Further, the big investment per participant is worth it because it provides ample time for both parties to determine if the fit is right.
Transitioning to a more representative work place
Dr. Sigrid Nikutta, the first woman to lead the BVG in the organization’s 85-year history, envisions a future where the BVG serves as a “beacon” in Berlin for a highly-skilled, healthy, and increasingly diverse team. Recruiting a workforce more representative of the city it serves also stands to strengthen BVG’s relations with the community. The BVG currently boasts employees from 34 different nationalities and a female chair, but overall there is still work to be done.
Hiring more women requires more potential female employees to apply and develop the right skills through apprenticeships. BVG launched the campaign, entitled “Frauen bewegen Berlin” (or Women Move Berlin) to recruit a larger pool of women candidates for the fresh crop of 140 apprentices admitted annually to its three-year training program.
Dr. Nikutta has reinvigorated the organization’s efforts to create a more balanced workforce since she took the helm four years ago. The idea that mixed teams are more creative and achieve better results figures prominently in the agency’s corporate communications materials and in a very visible way as the organizing theme for the 2012 annual report, which profiles a dozen female “Azubis” (trainees).
Gender diversity at the BVG has fluctuated over the years. Women filled many roles during the World Wars, reaching a high mark of 29% in 1944. When Berlin was divided after WWII, the BVG in West Berlin and BVB in East Berlin took different approaches toward women in the workforce. Women were an integral element of all aspects of the East German national economy. A short-lived East German television series, Johanna, depicted the trials and tribulations of an East Berlin tram driver in the 1980s. Even today, the highest proportion of female drivers persists within the tram division—a mode of transit only available in former East Berlin. In West Berlin, women represented about 9% of the BVG workforce in the late 1960s and were only legally permitted to drive vehicles after 1972. The post-reunification merger, now nearly 25 years ago, has shifted that figure to roughly 17% for the organization as a whole.
Ausbildung in the United States
In the United States, the apprenticeship approach is on the rise. Our 2015 budget proposes to direct $1.5 billion in 2015 to support a four-year, $6 billion Community College Job-Driven Training Fund to double the number of apprenticeships. The Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative would set aside $500 million to support grants for new apprenticeships and to increase participation in existing programs. Public transportation providers could likely be eligible recipients of this type of funding.
TiaraThe Federal Transit Administration (FTA) launched the Innovative Transit Workforce Development program in 2012. MAP-21 formally authorized the competitive grant program, which continues to support public transportation providers’ efforts to build a workforce equipped with the technical skills needed to support increasingly sophisticated energy-efficient fleets and facilities.
Whether in the United States or Germany, creating more representative and inter-disciplinary teams requires leadership, encouragement, and consistency over time. Despite many of our differences, all cities need good jobs and affordable, convenient ways to get around town. The BVG’s creative communications and outreach provide a helpful model for other public transportation providers to consider as they develop strategies for investing in tomorrow’s workforce by recruiting a diverse body of employees.
All images credited to BVG. Faith Hall is a community planner for the Federal Transit Administration, USDOT and Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Germany this year. The views expressed here are hers and do not reflect the official position of either organization.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.