Retired professionals in Germany are turning their backs on allotments and organized bus tours to return to the jobs they loved as volunteers in some of the remotest places on earth.
"Honduras, you say? No problem. I'm on my way to the landing strip"
In their home country of Germany, they are no longer seen as useful. They are pensioners; retired from the world of work. But their knowledge and experience is still coveted in some areas of the world despite their age.
Thanks to an agency which has been giving German pensioners a new lease of life for the past 22 years, retired workers can still be an asset as volunteers in the specialized fields throughout the developing world.
The filing cabinets in the SES offices in Bonn contain the names of 6400 people. They come from all walks of life and from diverse areas of the working world: engineers share shelf space with carpenters, doctors and journalists are filed side by side with teachers and chemists.
These are all pensioners; people deemed by the German state to be too old to work. But at a moment's notice, in response to a certain need in some far flung corner of the world, any one of these people can be reactivated and sent to lend their skills in a far away land.
In the last 12 months, 1,400 of them have seen action as volunteer experts in 90 countries around the world and every day new missions come in from Asia, Africa, South America and East Europe. These are the countries which can benefit most from the knowledge of Germany's "special forces" of skilled pensioners. These are the countries which lack personnel with the level of training and experience the retired German professionals can offer. This is why the SES operatives are getting a second bite of the employment cherry.
From couch to Honduras via helicopter
Ulrich von Hohmeier is a perfect example of how SES revived his career after it was deemed legally over. The 68-year-old certified engineer would be picking up his pension back in Germany before tending the garden and falling asleep in front of daytime soap operas had it not been for the chance to extend his working life. But in Honduras, where he has worked many times since joining the SES, von Hohmeier goes to work by helicopter.
"The first time I was in Honduras, I was working on farms very high up in the mountains," he recalls. "The only way to get from farm to farm was by helicopter such was the catastrophic state of the roads. It was the only reasonable option available to get there."
Bed, board and professional satisfaction
The retired engineer, as with most of the ex-professionals on the SES books, works as a volunteer. Transport, lodging and food are provided by whomever he works for but he collects no wages. Sometimes the project he is working on is supported by the German government and then the expenses are picked up by the state but von Hohmeier receives nothing more than his pension in return. But it is not about the money. It is about self-worth and helping others.
The work he and his fellow SES members do also reaps benefits for his home country. Sometimes the pensioners will work on behalf of a German company in a developing nation and will often return to Germany with news of lucrative future projects and even offers of more work for his employers.
"In almost every situation, something develops," he adds. "This is a strong joint venture where everybody benefits, from the people we work for, the country we work in and the German economy."
Risk assessment a priority
SES understands that they are dealing with workers who are still of sound mind but maybe less sound of body. That is why the company always makes a thorough assessment of worker and work situation, which could be in a very remote part of the world, to make sure that no one is in danger.
"We always look before hand to see if the country is safe for the elderly expert to go to because we are responsible for their welfare and life," says Sonnhild Schretzmann from SES.
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China has become the leading employer of SES operatives in the past year and has even honored one of the experts with their own monument in appreciation of their service, an honor which has been awarded to very few Germans. Werner Gierig, an engineer, joins Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the only Germans to have been honored with their own bust in the People's Republic.
Gierig worked in China during the 1980s when the People's Republic first began to open up and his work helped to further its development into a modern society. As a result Werner Gierig is "a highly praised and beloved man in China," according to Schretzmann.
A new lease of life
Far from ending up on the scrap heap of employment once the retirement threshold has been crossed, German pensioners are continuing to bring their skills to the world and are gaining even more life experience as a result.
"I don't know anything about the area," Ulrich von Hohmeier says before jetting off to his next mission in the northwest Chinese province of Xin Jiang. "I think it's a really remote place but I'm very excited."
Hardly the response one would expect from a man who should, by society's expectations, be enjoying a life of pipe and slippers.