Germany Faces a Shortage of Engineers

Even loosening immigration won't fill the gap, say experts

Photo: Patrick Pleul/AFP/Getty Images

2 August 2011—Germany needs to address the growing number of job openings for engineers—and how it intends to fill them—if it hopes to keep its mighty manufacturing machine roaring ahead. In June, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) reported that there were 76 400 vacant engineering jobs—an all-time high.

A booming economy is one reason for the widening shortage of engineers. But a declining population—at 1.38 children per mother, Germany has the lowest birth rate in Europe—and a steadily rising demand for developing sustainable mobility and energy solutions are also contributing to the problem.

"Demand for engineers will continue to grow as we move toward an all-electric society," says Michael Schanz, head of engineering education at the Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies (VDE), referring to the growing use of plug-in hybrid cars and electric vehicles. "More companies will simply need more engineers."

VDE estimates a shortage of 6000 electrical and electronic engineers in 2011, up from 3000 last year and 1000 the year before, when the global economic and financial crisis slammed Germany. The country has some 170 000 EEs today. VDI, which calculates its figures differently, reported 18 000 open EE positions in June, up from 11 000 a year ago.

Policymakers in Berlin have responded to the shortage of skilled workers with a number of measures, including changes in immigration rules that allow German companies to hire engineers from other countries, including those outside of the European Union. Among them: The annual salary that companies must pay foreigners has been lowered from 66 000 (US $95 000) to 40 000, which is roughly the starting salary of an engineering graduate in Germany. The government is also sponsoring programs to attract engineers from Spain, Greece, and other European countries suffering from high unemployment.

To make it easy for engineers to move around Europe, engineering associations and other groups across Europe are working with the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) to launch the new Engineering Card. The card, which German engineers can apply for now and other countries are planning to launch, provides standardized information about the engineer’s qualifications and skills for greater transparency.

While Lars Funk, head of the profession and society division at VDI, welcomes these measures by the German government and the EU, he doesn’t believe they will solve the country’s engineering shortage. "We don’t expect many engineers will come, because among other reasons, there is a shortage of engineers across Europe," says Funk. "What we really need to do is educate more engineers."

The number of engineering students in Germany is growing slightly. Around 40 000 will graduate this year (up about 5000 from five years ago), 9000 of whom are in electrical and electronic engineering. With the aim of increasing those numbers, the German engineering associations are spearheading several promotional initiatives targeting young students and are also lobbying lawmakers to establish a nationwide educational policy for teaching technology in primary and secondary schools.

But if getting young people into engineering is one challenge, keeping them there is another. The dropout rate among electrical engineering students in Germany is 50 percent, according to Schanz. "There is much more potential to increase the number of engineers by investing in dropouts rather than trying to attract young people who are less interested in engineering," he says. The dropout problem, he adds, is often linked to math, which isn’t taught sufficiently in many primary and secondary schools and which tends to dominate the first year of studies at most engineering schools.

Some universities have responded by offering greater support during the first year of study, providing math refresher courses and mentoring programs. Some are also involving students directly in hands-on projects to show them how math skills can help them construct models and solve problems.

"Math is really an issue and a big reason why lots of first-year engineering students quit," says Robin Goebel, a student at the Technical University Berlin. "But you need to box your way through—it’s fundamental to engineering."

Another challenge is attracting more women to engineering. Germany today has around a million engineers, 13 percent of whom are women, up from around 10 percent a decade ago, according to VDI. Of the 384 000 students currently studying engineering in Germany, 79 000 are female, says the organization. (VDE estimates there are 85 000 women engineers out of 700 000 engineers.)

While the engineering associations have initiated various programs to encourage female students to study engineering, they admit that it’s tough going. "Many girls are more interested in helping people and society and don’t see this possibility in engineering," Schanz says. "It will remain very hard to attract women to engineering—much harder than reducing the dropout rate."

But for those young men and women who master the math and are interested in engineering, the doors to a promising career are wide open in Germany. "One of my professors told me that no student will leave the engineering department without a job," says Goebel, who is specializing in environment technology and renewable-energy systems. "That’s certainly encouraging."

This article was updated on 19 August 2011.

About the Author

Contributing editor John Blau writes about technology from Dusseldorf, Germany. In the March 2010 issue he reported on European plans for a high-tech North Sea grid.

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