IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE: The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice.

[ Contents ]

Creating jobs in rural areas


LEADER, a forum for the initiatives of the Vogelsberg
(Hessen, Germany):

The job centre

Animation, training, counselling, networking...
The local action group of the Vogelsberg,
in Germany, has been at the forefront of
project support, putting employment at the
top of the agenda. Here, the acronym "L.E.A.D.E.R.",
"Links between Actions for the Development
of the Rural Economy", means just that.


"LEADER I came at the right place at the right time," says Hans- Ulrich Lipphardt, elected councillor of the administrative district of the Vogelsberg. "In the mid-1980s, the district set up a 'Work and Environment' Task Force. It came up with an array of ideas that became reality a few years later thanks to a combination of regional, national and European instruments such as the Hessen programme for the renovation of villages and, of course, LEADER. The Volgelsberg was one of the first districts in Hessen to adopt the area-based, integrated and bottom-up approach to development. We also understood that we had to 'think networking': how could a very rural area like ours, a little off the beaten track, take advantage of European networks? Furthermore, how could we mobilise all the socio-economic players in the area, rising above the political sensitivities and different interests? It is precisely to tackle problems like these that we have built this approach, thanks in great part to LEADER."

"LEADER" is therefore quite simply the name and "GmbH" (limited liability company) the legal status that was chosen for what has become a fully-fledged development agency. The local action group (LAG) forms the core of this agency, whose governing board comprises representatives of the District, the 19 towns, the chambers of commerce and industry and a large number of local organisations from all horizons, sectors and tendencies.

An area of medium mountains northeast of Frankfurt, the Vogelsberg is the archetype of an Objective 5b area in Germany: no desertification, very relative isolation - motorways are never that far away -, an average unemployment rate comparable to or even less than the national average (12%), etc. But there is considerable underemployment, many commuters, struggling farmers and problems of mobility for the categories of the population most vulnerable socially and professionally, especially young people and women. "We have allocated two million euros to create employment," points out Thomas Schaumberg, director of LEADER GmbH, before adding: "it is estimated that some sixty jobs will be created at the end of LEADER II, but it is impossible to really put a figure on the number of jobs created by the Initiative: in addition to helping individual holders of projects - over one hundred between 1995 and 1998 - our task also consists first and foremost in 'preparing the ground' for the long term, creating conditions favourable to sustainable employment in the future... Just this evening I was at a meeting with some forty local inventors who we are helping; we were discussing patents: when is the best time and what is the best way to file a patent? It is another very important matter for us, because today's inventions are tomorrow's jobs." Here, the focal point of the LEADER programme is support for businesses. "Tourism is important," assures Thomas Schaumberg, "but more in terms of image than in terms of employment - we must 'sell' the fact that the Vogelsberg is the largest area of volcanoes in Europe, for example. Small and medium-sized businesses are our biggest strength. We have a lot of them and many of them export..." These SMEs are generally industrial firms. That is perhaps why most of the people interviewed about LEADER's role often used technical metaphors like "engine", "current" or "lever".


Quality circle

Peter Thomas runs the Hartmann company (75 employees) which is owned by a social foundation in Frankfurt and specialised in the customised transformation of commercial vehicles. This coachbuilder makes all kinds of vehicles for travelling services, meaning the vehicles are often intended for the countryside: delivery vans or vans for travelling markets, "library bus", "bank bus" used by the local savings bank, "health bus" to serve as a mobile dispensary, etc.

The first contact the Hartmann firm had with LEADER was in 1993 when it participated along with 17 other businesses from the Vogelsberg in a training course on quality control organised by the LAG. The aim was to obtain the ISO 9001 standard which certifies quality work in all the phases of production of a product or service - design, development, manufacture, installation and after-sales service. In short, it is a genuine "quality passport" for a company, especially if it wants to access the subcontracting market or process products of well-known manufacturers as is the case of Hartmann.

A few years later, the coachbuilder was to "inherit" a project full of challenges and difficulties that often have to be faced when implementing a bona fide innovation in the agri-food sector. "In 1996, LEADER GmbH and a group of organic farmers and butchers came to see us about building a mobile abattoir," explains Peter Thomas. "Not only did they want to reduce the number of middlemen, but they also wanted a quality approach to avoid the transport of animals which causes stress and has a negative effect on the meat. We were immediately interested in the project, because it is extremely innovative: as far as we know, there is only one example of this type of product, in England. Unfortunately, we calculated that building a prototype would cost an estimated 500 000 euros, a sum and a risk that a small business like ours cannot assume all by itself..."


Vicious circle

The project is a particularly risky one, because it concerns a product intended for an activity that is highly regulated at all levels. The sanitary and environmental rules and regulations applying to abattoirs are obviously very rigid and only apply at the moment to fixed abattoirs. For a mobile abattoir, there is a legal vacuum. That is why the project holders had to step up their administrative contacts with the European Commission, the German federal government, the authorities of the Land of Hessen, the veterinary services of the Vogelsberg, etc. "And for a long time all these institutions each tried to pass the buck," deplores Peter Thomas. "We found ourselves in a real Catch-22 situation because without the green light of each of the authorities concerned, the mobile abattoir could not be built, and if the system was not actually built, it was not possible to judge it. So for the various authorities, no specific regulation could be introduced...

But the final obstacles are gradually being removed, and things should start moving... I reckon that we are about halfway into the project."

The mobile abattoir envisaged by the coachbuilder consists of a van set up as a veterinary office and laboratory. Attached to this is a trailer, the abattoir per se, which can be expanded upwards and outwards so that both pigs and cows can be handled (it would be possible to slaughter about a hundred animals a day). The technical design has been completed, and the plans and model of the mechanism have been finalised.

If the project is only half complete after more than two years, it is because the promoters also had to overcome the initial hostility of the large regional abattoirs, convince certain butchers and drum up support for the cause from the parliamentarians of Hessen, etc. Peter Thomas says: "LEADER did everything we didn't have time to do: refine the initial idea, carry out a viability study, obtain public funding to help finance the creation of prototypes, find us a technical partner - the Vogt firm, specialised in abattoir equipment -, endorse and support our contacts with the institutions..."

The project, which would immediately create five new jobs at Hartmann while consolidating the activity of some fifteen farms, is an extreme case that only a seasoned local action group can hope to bring to a successful completion. LEADER GmbH has proven over time that it knows how to manage complex situations.


Selling groups

Since 1994, the LAG has been helping to organise sectors like organic meat or cheese, working with the various players concerned to mobilise, bring together and professionalise producers and even create marketing platforms. Thus LEADER I supported the opening in Alsfeld of a "Bio-Halle", an outlet that sells the products of some forty organic farmers. Since then, three other shops have been opened in Frankfurt, in Kassel and in Giessen. LEADER II backed a large-scale operation, "Dialogue and Marketing", which led to the creation of the "Fuchsh¯fe" (Fox Farms) selling group. Owned by ten non-industrial cheese dairies, this group supplies 120 shops in a 100-kilometre radius. It employs 4 full-time and 8 part-time workers, and a new position has been created in each of the participating cheese dairies.

In an entirely different field, LEADER II has helped create "SoulNet", one of the first Internet service providers in Germany to use satellite technology that offers total freedom of connection. "For example, stands at an exhibition can be instantaneously equipped with an Internet site," says Udo Ornik, director of the business. "LEADER has helped us financially - about ECU 50 000 - but it has also opened the doors of key institutions like the University of Marburg, which is working with us on certain technical aspects." Thomas Batz, one of the three young computer specialists who is a partner in the venture completes the picture: "Now, we are seeing the first returns on the investment: not only is the Vogelsberg no longer structurally behind in telematics, but it now has state-of- the-art technologies which are already generating new business. For example, the UBS-Hainer company, which manages the data of very large firms from a distance, has relocated its main service provider from Berlin to Lauterbach, creating 10 jobs here."


"A qualification offensive"

In addition to lending technical assistance to businesses and entrepreneurs, LEADER GmbH has been busy helping with the training, qualification and employment of specific groups (see inset). Women are of course a target of this action, and LEADER has already been involved in several operations for them. "In addition to a large- scale action for women wanting to set up their own business, there is the 'Qualification offensive' project jointly supported by the District, Land, European Social Fund and LEADER," says Thomas Schaumberg. "The purpose is to provide women working in small businesses with more skills. Often they have responsibilities but receive no formal recognition for these duties. They can take further education courses in management, law, accounting, etc. and upon successful completion are awarded a real diploma. Their skills are structured, and they may receive a promotion."

For the outside observer and perhaps for Sabine Berger, the person in charge, the "AST" project ("Anruf Sammel Taxi" / Calling Service for Sharing Taxis) is the most spectacular of these actions combining employment and mobility.

In 1993, a meeting was organised with the women's associations of the Vogelsberg. The purpose was to tackle the problematic shortage of public transport, a problem from which women are the first to suffer. "A working group was set up. It prepared a questionnaire that it sent out to all the households in the district to find out about inadequate timetables, routes, etc," explains Sabine Berger.

"We received and processed several hundred answers. On the one hand, the bus services organised to go to the two town centres of Alsfeld and Lauterbach turned out to be largely underused outside commuting times. On the other hand, there was a great need for service between certain remote villages that was not being satisfied. From this conclusion came the idea of killing two birds with one stone: new bus routes would be created... with women in the driving seat."


Women bus drivers

As is always the case, people first had to be won over: "at the time, there were only two women driving buses - the daughters of a bus driver," remembers Sabine. "The owners were strongly opposed to having women drivers". The transport companies' reservations were only overcome when it was guaranteed that the project would pay for all the training and wages of the student drivers. The participation of the European Social Fund, the District's "Work and Social Assistance" programme and the Hessen Board of Transport was going to lead to the creation in 1994 of a two-year paid training programme in which participants would be able to obtain the "passenger transport" licence, then the "qualified bus driver" licence.

Out of 50 women applicants, 10 were selected. Two of them were 19 and 20 years old while the others were between 30 and 40 and all had at least two children. Some were among the long-term unemployed, others were women returners. The training course lasted from April 1994 to the end of 1996. During the first three months (period necessary to obtain the driving licence), the weekly schedule consisted of three days of theory and three days of training on the job. After this, there were two days of theory and three days of actual work in a transport company.

While the training was going on, 12 new bus routes were started up. "Some operate according to a call system," explains Sabine Berger, "you arrive, for example, at the train station of Alsfeld and a minibus comes to pick you up to take you to some village or another, even if you are the only passenger. The system thus combines the advantages of the regular bus and taxi service. 14 000 trips were made in this way in 1997-98..."

Now, eight women have a job, 4 work full time and 4 part time. And Sabine points out: "without LEADER, the project never would have existed: the programme and the LAG played a determining role in the design, coordination, consultation and organisation of the training programme down to the last detail; a childminding service for the women participants, for example, was also part of the 'LEADER package'...For me, it's a great project that has helped solve the local problem of mobility, create jobs for women and also bring together around the same table 6 transport companies out of 9 and 12 communities out of 19."

The same strategy is now going to be applied to an action to develop teleworking launched by the Land of Hessen in March 1999: awareness, identification of potential workers and interested companies (in the Vogelsberg and in Frankfurt), training, etc.

"I'm going to tell you how, ideally, we see things," concludes Thomas Schaumberg: "training at school plus training on the job equals qualification. In addition to this, there can be life-long learning. Then there is every chance that business activities and companies will develop, bringing local development and jobs in their wake."



Area: 1 459 km²
Population: 118 540 inhabitants
Financing LEADER II (estimate): ECU 11 500 000
EU: ECU 1 300 000
Other public funds: ECU 1 300 000
Private: ECU 8 900 000


Vogelsbergstr. 40
D-36341 Lauterbach
Tél: +49 66 41 96 46 12
Fax: +49 66 41 96 46 46

source: LEADER Magazine n°20 - Spring, 1999

European Flag