Mr. Christopher Silber-Bonz, the CEO (Executive Director) of the Roller Shade and Sun Protection dealer association met with me at the R+T trade show in Stuttgart in late February, 2018. He helped me to understand how the industry and dealerships work. Here is a summary of what I learned.
Roller Shutters and Sun Shades
Germany has about 330 occupations requiring formal vocational training in Germany. One of them is Roller Shutter and Sun Shade installation occupation. Most German and european homes have shades which roll down to cover the windows. This keeps in heat during the winter and shades sun penetration in the summer. Traditionally these “roller shutters” were mechanical using a strap inside the room to raise and lower them. Today more and more have motor controls and some connect to the smart home controls of the house -- tying into the climate control of the home.
There are over 700 dealers in Mr. Silber-Bonz’s Federal Association which oversees 16 German State Roller Shade Associations.
A typical dealer
While the technology of the equipment has been changing with electrification and controls in the past few decades, some of the dealers have been in business for over 100 years. Most are small, averaging of 8 - 10 employees. The owner is usually a trained technician, he has completed a training program called the “Dual Program” which involves three years of paid, on-the-job training combined with regular in-classroom learning. Most have also obtained the additional two year Master certificate which requires additional technical training and business training. A few dealers have more than one branch but most are very regional. Mr. Silber-Bonz explains that this is a typical craft businesses in Germany. The dealer will serve roughly a 50 mile radius. And the competition, while increasing, is not fierce. The dealership will have one or two office staff - estimator and administration. “In many cases the owner’s wife runs the office,” he explains. The dealership will have about five field technicians and one or two apprentices in the Dual Program. Traditionally, as with many crafts, the the business is passed from one generation to the next.
Silber-Bonz reports that the owners find this a profitable business. They will typically carry two product lines for roller shutters and two for sun shades. And most of the business is negotiated in nature. This means the dealer usually quotes driectly to the home owner and often the jobs are to upgrade an existing home.
The Dual Program - Apprentice training
As German youth finish secondary school they are presented with several pathways. One of them leads to an academic high school (called gimnasium) and then to university. Another leads to a vocational Dual program. There are other paths as well and some options for switching from one to the other as interests and achievement are demonstrated. Dual Programs are offered for baking, cooking, CNC machine programing, carpentry, cosmetology, etc. 330 or so programs in total. One of these is Roller Shutter and Sun Shade.
Attracting apprentices is the job of the business owner. The Association will provide tools but the owner will attend local high schools and trade fairs to promote their company and the associated Dual Program. At the same time vocational “Craft” jobs are aggressively promoted by the German Government in many ways -- websites, career search software, print, TV advertisements, etc. As a consequence youth are familiar with the Dual Program and can visit websites and career fairs when they are young teenagers to learn about skills, jobs, careers and associated training programs.
One of the restrictions which underpins the Dual System is that the dealer must have a Master employed in order to be eligible to hire an apprentice. Often the owner is a Master but as long as an owner has an employed Master the company can hire an apprentice. The apprentice is paid to work and learn. The three year program includes about 80% on-the-job work and training in the dealership. At first the young apprentice can add very little value. But over time they learn the ropes. 20% of the time the apprentice is taking classes with other apprentices in the same trade. Mr. Silber-Bonz explains that because the roller shutter industry is very small, the German government has chosen only four vocational schools to perform the classroom training. The Dual Apprentice will travel to one of the vocational schools every few weeks, stay in a dormitory and receive education with the other apprentices. Silber-Bonz says that this arrangement is quite popular with the young apprentices. Currently there are about 500 apprentices spread across the dealers, the four vocational schools and the three years of training.
Investment by the Dealer
Each participating dealer is investing in the apprentice and their travel and lodging when they are in school for three years. The German regulations prevent firing the apprenticeship during the three year Dual Program. At the end, however, the dealer can let the employee go and the employee can leave if they choose. That said, Silber-Bonz reports that, while things are changing a little, for the most part the employees remain at the dealership for long careers.
What’s in an Vocational Education?
A “book of knowledge” underpins each of the Dual vocational programs. These documented guidelines establishes what knowledge a crafts person must master. It also defines the borders between one craft and another. Mr. Silber-Bonz explained how recently it took two years to make some modifications and updates to the Roller Shade and Sun Protection education guiddelines. The Union, vocational schools, trade association and government must all weigh in on any proposed changes. The “neighboring” trade must also provide comment. In this past change the electrician trade provided some resistance on the inclusion of electrical system training and skills in the Roller Shade trade. They were made nervous by this trade eroding some of the electricians' responsibility in construction.
Ongoing education is provided by the manufacturers and the Association. Mr. Silber-Bonz reports that most technical training is very well attended and the manufacturers provide high quality programs. However, the business skills are not as popular. He personally wants his dealers to be thinking about their generational transitions, but while he sets up training, few attend.
The Business Economics
The trained technician earns about 3000 Euros per month. This varies up in urban areas and down in rural areas. In US Dollars this is about 21 - 22 per hour. The hourly rate charged by the dealer to the client is about 50 euro ($60 - 65). I commented that this sounded very low, especially considering the extensive, professional training. Mr. Silber-Bonz agreed, he hopes his dealers will push up both the wages and labor charges and rely less on the equipment markup for their profit. He added that this industry is not unionize, unlike many industries in Germany. The unions see the industry as too small. The dealers have not seen an advantage. However, he believes that joining a union would help reassure potential employees that the wages are comparable with other professions.
Immigrants filling the ranks?
We discussed the role of immigrants helping to fill the ranks of his dealers. Mr. Silber-Bonz reported that while this is promising in theory, there are many hurdles. “It is complicated because many rules must be obeyed: getting permission to work, learning the language. So far there is not a large potential. There are some interesting examples but it is not a trend.”