German engineers are looked for by magnifying glass
WSJ, the Wall Street Journal has published a feature on the missing engineers in Germany. TextileFuture made the scarcity aware before, however in the US the fact might be weighted differently, because Germany is an export champion and thus is allowing some malicious joy
The Federation of German Engineers estimates employers this year will seek 85200 engineers but find only 73500 takers. The gap will roughly triple over the next decade, the federation predicts.
Germany is the world’s third-biggest machine manufacturer after China and the U.S. The sector’s 3200 companies, most of them family-owned, employ roughly one million workers, more than any other industry. Three-fourths of its revenue is from exports, according to the VDMA industry federation.
German universities haven’t trained enough engineers since reunification in 1990. “From 1995 to 2002 sluggish growth discouraged studying engineering,” said Oliver Koppel, economist at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. The annual number of graduates declined to 30000 from 50000 during that period.
The effects are evident today after a decade of economic expansion. Of the 1.7 million engineers working in Germany, over 37 % are at least 50 years old. More than 600000 of them will retire in the next decade, making the current shortage worse over time.
Unlike the so-called Mittelstand, the country’s small and midsize companies that are key suppliers, large German corporations can bank on their reputation to woo talent. For instance, engineering and automotive-parts supplier Robert Bosch employs more than 15000 software engineers alongside many more in traditional fields who design smart systems for machinery from drills to autonomous cars.
Big German companies also can find engineers abroad. “We don’t rely on one single pool to hire engineers,” said Gordon Riske, CEO of forklift truck maker Kion Group AG, which operates in the U.S., Asia and Latin America. “It wouldn’t make sense for us just to hire German graduates.”
Smaller firms must get creative. Preccon Robotics GmbH nurtures talent through close ties with local engineering schools. “We’re dependent on the creativity of young engineers,” said marketing and sales manager Hartmut Lindner.
Complicating the situation for smaller firms is increasing specialization among technical staff. Germany’s industrial might was built largely on mechanical engineers. Their design process tends to move slowly because product requirements are very specific and inflexible, said Joachim Seidelmann, head of the competence center at Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research. Fraunhofer brings together government and corporate funding to help companies develop technological innovations.
“Software is flexible and can be modified after the design to please individual customers,” he said. To bridge the disciplines, engineers must find common ground. “They have to learn how to understand each other.”
Germany’s engineering challenges are a national priority. The government in 2013 launched an initiative called Industrie 4.0 to help companies digitize and reduce their dependence on U.S. technology.
The project boasts some success. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, 64 % of German manufacturing firms will digitize operations in the next two years, compared with 36 % of similar U.S. firms.
“German companies are very quickly applying innovations on the factory floor,” said Rolf Wutzke, a scientist at Fraunhofer.
But while digitizing internal operations can increase productivity, it is only a first step. Companies will need armies of engineers to digitize the products they sell, as Kion has. The firm can track from its headquarters in Wiesbaden how much its customers as far away as China are using their forklifts. Unexpected benefits go beyond offering a new product range, executives say. “A reduction in our activity could help us predict a recession,” said Riske.