Dr. Hartmut Richter: The trades get going – a sector of the economy with a future

The first thing that anyone looking at Baden-Württemberg’s economy from the outside sees is the jewel in its crown – its export industry. At first glance, the big names in the motor vehicle manu­­fac­­turing industry, mechan­­ical engi­neer­ing and the “hidden champions” in numer­­ous high-tech oriented market-niches dominate the field. A second glance reveals the depth and breadth of Baden-Württemberg’s economy and points to the numerous small and medium-sized companies. These form the essential basis for the success of the economy in Baden-Württemberg as a whole. This is where the trades perform a central function.

About every fifth company in Baden-Württemberg is a trades firm. Almost every fifth employee works for a trades firm, and in vocational training, the trades occupy a top position before other sectors such as industry, commerce and the services. About every second appren­tice/trainee who has learned a technical­/com­­mercial occupation does so in a trade. The trades thus make an essential contribu­tion to ensuring the quality of employees in the manufacturing economy.

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The trades have a long tradition in Europe’s economic development. While they were responsible for almost all areas of production in the Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries initially forced the trades out of the area of manufacturing.

But at the same time, it also formed the basis for the development of industry itself.
Whether it was the engineer Robert Bosch or the baker’s son and journeyman gunsmith Gottlieb Daimler – trades­­men and their skills laid the foundation stone for industrial careers in Baden-Württemberg.

This “supplier function” is and remains one of the two central contributions of the trades to Baden-Württemberg’s pros­­perous economic development. The idea of supply in this context has a dual mean­­ing. It refers to the continual seed­­ing func­­tion of the trades. Trades firms con­­stantly develop beyond the typical personal structures and into the industrial sector.

In its second form, the term refers to suppliers in the narrower technical sense. Baden-Württemberg has Germany’s clos­­est links between the trades and industry and the highest percentage of supplier firms.
But the economic crises of the last 20 years have also shown the reverse side of this connection – component manufacturers as a means of relieving production crises. Many trades firms have already seen the writing on the wall and have expanded from contract manufacturers to general manufacturers of higher-quality components, which make it pos­­sible to occupy an independent position in the market.

The fact that the trades are also suppliers of very well-trained skilled em­ploy­ees may be painful for the firms that trained them, but it is an additional contribution to the economic success of Baden-Württemberg.

This linkage with the other sectors of industry contains great potential for devel­­opment for trades firms. Manufacturers will probably continue to concentrate on their core competencies, thereby contin­­uing to increase the size of the trades-based suppliers.

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In such cases the range of services ex­­tends from building cleaning and catering in the food industry through maintaining buildings up to services for production plants and their control. At the same time, the trades will add value to their services through their own developments and networking in their particular trade environ­ment in the supplier hierarchy, thereby freeing themselves from a one-sided de­­pendence on client manufacturers.

The increase in the exchange of services with the commercial sector has not re­­duced the importance of the trades for the private consumer – but it has changed it. Trades firms are still part of the essen­­tial basic equipment of the local and regional infrastructure.
Our daily life depends on the trades 24 hours a day. The slogan of the trades’ current image campaign “The trades. The economic force. Next door” sums up the function of the trades in a nutshell.

But the supply structures have shifted in this market. Individual trades firms are par­­tially subject to increasing pressure due to new service providers. Bak­ery chains or service chains for partial as­­pects of motor mechanics activities are particularly visible examples in this con­­text. With work to do with real es­­tate and properties, tradesmen must compete more and more with the black economy and the do-it-yourself handy­­man. Is this more a pessimistic prognosis for this part of the trades? By no means!
Here, too, the principle that creativity and quality will always win out, applies. The chain of examples ranges from butch­­ers to caterers, from construction trades­­men to highly qualified building energy consultants. The heating engineer offers a wide range of concepts and services to do with economically and ecologically efficient building ventilation, electricians design and build customers’ ideas of the smart home.

The basis for this ability of the trades to adjust and innovate continues to be the traditional training system for apprentices/trainees, journeymen and master tradesmen. And anyone who wants to can use the courses available at the trades training organizations to add to their competence at tertiary level. The doors are now open to master tradesmen. The trades offer excellent prospects for men and women who prize achievement, responsibility, self-determination and push­­ing through their own ideas – especially in Baden-Württemberg.

RichterHochPrint_HELLThe author is managing director of the Baden-Württembergischer Handwerkstag (BWHT), in which all trades chambers and branch associations of the skilled trades cooperate. This covers interdisciplinary projects as well as the permanent presence in the relevant network of politics, the authorities, edu­­ca­­tion, the banking industry, tertiary education and social and business groups.