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Bundeswehr seeks makeover as attractive employer

Nina Werkhäuser / dbFebruary 1, 2015

Germany's Bundeswehr doesn't have a very good image as an employer. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen aims to change that with a long-term family-friendly modernization plan.

Bundeswehr Kita 21.01.2014 in Lüneburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Presumably, Ursula von der Leyen would like to roll up her sleeves and pitch in to clear the ramshackle barracks. That was the impression on Friday when the defense minister described to lawmakers in the Bundestag the state of the Bundeswehr: dilapidated lodgings and unacceptable working conditions in quite a few locations.

With 750 million euros ($847 million) earmarked for the modernization of decrepit barracks, the Defense Minister is frustrated that progress is so slow. "I can't understand why things take so long," she sighed and, at the same time, urged patience. After all, the ambitious conservative politician only took office 13 months ago and is now submitting draft legislation to parliament aimed at finally turning the Bundeswehr into an attractive employer.

41-hour work week

With the help of the law to "enhance attractiveness", von der Leyen plans to get rid of antiquated regulations and sweep the mold and cobwebs from the barracks. "A soldier is always on duty" is a precept that is sure to land on the rubbish pile of history. "For the first time in Bundeswehr history, we will guarantee soldiers on regular duty here in Germany regulated working hours," von der Leyen explained the introduction of the 41-hour work week for soldiers. This doesn't apply to foreign missions, she added.

Part-time work will be an option, too, in particular for soldiers who have children. Von der Leyen also plans a slight increase in service pay and bonuses for risky tasks like mine diving or bomb disposal. "We're not doing this out of the goodness of our hearts, but because we ask a lot of our soldiers," von der Leyen noted. "We want and need the best, so we have to offer the best working conditions."

Deutschland Verteidigungsministerin Ursula von der Leyen im Bundestag
Von der Leyen is putting forward legislation, but also knows this will take time to filter throughImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

To date, the Bundeswehr has 11,000 voluntary recruits, the minister said. That's more than ever before after Germany suspended conscription in 2011. Competition for qualified candidates is fierce, and the Bundeswehr is left standing empty-handed from time to time, she said.

Bundeswehr 'lags behind'

The armed forces in many other countries have long made the changes Germany's Bundeswehr is now tackling. Most lawmakers regard the move as positive and the Bundeswehr Association callas the draft legislation a "grat success."

The opposition, however, criticizes that the reforms don't go far enough.

"It's a pretty sad state of affairs and paying two euros a day more in service pay doesn't make it any more attractive," said Michael Leutert, from the Left party.

Green party politician Agnieszska Brugger points to the recent report of the commissioner, who years ago had already condemned deficiencies when it came to equipment and barracks, and who speaks of a downward spiral. The problems have not emerged out of the blue, said Brugger, and have even been exacerbated by recent changes to the Bundeswehr. There was said to be particular dissatisfaction among soldiers about the incompatibility between career and family.

Defense Minister von der Leyen herself is not expecting a speedy solution to the problems. "There is still a lot of bumpy terrain that lies ahead of us," said von der Leyen. Increasing the attractiveness of the Bundeswehr as an employer requires more than changes to take place on paper. It is something that must be experienced, the minister states soberly, seeming to harbor little doubt that senior military personnel who are charged with making the big decisions see things the same way.