Labor bottleneck squeezes German solar sector | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 23.11.2010
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Labor bottleneck squeezes German solar sector

Jobs in renewable energies in Germany have quadrupled since 2006, but a stubborn lack of qualified employees remains. Immigration policy and a wariness of outsiders could hobble the industry before it hits full stride.

Interior of the Roth and Rau factory

In the solar industry, qualified employees are a scarce commodity

As in many countries, renewable energy sources are playing an increasingly important role in Germany.

Thanks to a generous system of feed-in tariffs, they now account for 16.3 percent of the country's electricity, according to the Renewable Energies Agency.

Indeed, Germany has ambitions for the sector that go beyond its own borders.

The export-oriented economy is pinning its hopes on becoming a center of knowledge and innovation that will sell the know-how for clean technologies to the rest of the world.

And why not? Demand for employees in the renewables sector is growing rapidly and consistently.

In the first quarter of 2010, the monitoring agency Wissenschaftsladen Bonn counted 2,289 job openings – a fourfold increase on the 528 jobs listed in the same quarter of 2006. So far so good.

But there's a daunting hurdle confronting Germany's clean economy dreams right now. Demand for skilled workers is outstripping supply.

What's more, difficult immigration policies, a backlash against multiculturalism and concerns about industrial espionage are stifling what could be a potential solution to the problem – skilled foreign labor.

Training not enough

Hans Joachim Moller of the Bergakadamie Freiberg

Hans Joachim Moller says employees are needed at all levels of the industry

Vast, interlinked networks of manufacturing facilities and research institutions have sprung up around the solar industry of the eastern German state of Saxony.

Some 14 percent of positions for qualified employees were left unfilled here during the first half of 2009, according to a survey released in April by the Institute for Employment Research.

At SolarWorld, in the city of Freiberg, a highly advanced assembly line of robots – each performing a specialized function – manufactures solar cells. The company is an international market leader that with facilities stretching around the world from the United States to Asia.

Speaking at SolarWorld's Freiberg facility, Hans-Joachim Moller, a professor of experimental physics at the nearby Technical University Bergakadamie, said labor shortages in Germany range from researchers and lab assistants through to technicians.

He wants to see more training programs, with narrower fields of focus tailored to the industry, but he concedes that this will only come at a cost to other sectors of the economy.

"Of course that means those people will then be missing elsewhere... That is a problem which in my opinion can only be solved by getting people - scientists - from foreign countries. Otherwise it can't function," he told Deutsche Welle.

Just 50 kilometers away, the Roth and Rau company works on a different, but related process.

Specializing in the hardware and technology needed to manufacture solar cells, Roth and Rau has some 800 employees and offers complete factory systems to their customers.

Bernd Rau, one of the company's founders, says his company has explored partnerships with universities in Saxony, but the search for skilled workers is becoming increasingly acute.

"It is more and more difficult, especially for the IT people, and also in engineering and mechanical engineering," he told Deutsche Welle.

Bernd Rau of Roth und Rau

Bernd Rau says finding employees for his company has become more difficult

Language barrier

There is a push to attract foreign workers, but it may not be enough.

Of the 300 educational programs specialized in renewable energy nationwide, 25 are now taught in English. That's up from just seven in 2007, according to Wissenschaftsladen Bonn.

And some areas of Germany may have to try especially hard to be alluring to outsiders.

Claudia Kemfert, an energy market specialist at the German Institute of Economic Research in Berlin, says the German language is a particularly high hurdle when it comes to attracting foreign workers.

On the international market, it's simply not very appealing. To compensate, companies located in eastern Germany in particular need to offer good salaries and incentives.

"Germany has to do a lot in order to be attractive, both in salary terms and attractive jobs."

Yet Kemfert also thinks that the renewables sector has a lot of potential to be attractive to foreigners "because these are jobs of the future and the market will increase drastically all over the world."

A solar facility in Germany

Feed in tariffs have made installing solar cells an attractive proposition

Wary of outsiders

The trouble is the industry itself can be wary of outsiders, fearing industrial espionage.

When Deutsche Welle visited SolarWorld, photography was completely forbidden. At and Roth and Rau it was restricted. Both companies have worldwide operations and lucrative, specialized knowledge to keep secret.

In fact, German companies in general fear losing the competitive edge that their knowledge affords them to foreign competitors.

A survey of security experts done by the German Association for Security in Industry and Commerce shows that 74 percent say their companies have knowledge which should be protected.

The survey covered 244 experts and indicates industrial espionage affects companies with operations outside of Germany.

Just one state to the west of Saxony, Heinrich Metzner of the University of Jena in Thuringia says some of the international students who have studied photovoltaics at his Institute of Solid State Physics have had to leave Germany after completing their studies.

Once their student visas expired, they were left with little choice but to return to their home countries and apply their knowledge there instead.

Inside Roth and Rau

Competition from Asia is a real concern for German companies

Built-in growth cap

Metzner doesn't sympathize much with industry's fears of spies. He argues that excessive secrecy has little value in any globalized industry. Knowledge is bound to leak, even by legal means, he says.

"It is inevitable in the globalized economic space when you sell machines and facilities, because manufacturers have to guarantee that their products function properly," he told Deutsche Welle. "And so industry can't avoid that know-how will be passed on.

It appears that even as the fields of photovoltaic, and renewable energy in general, grow in leaps and bounds, they may increasingly find themselves limited in their options and struggling to operate within Germany as qualified employees become more difficult to find.

Immigration policies, protectionist attitudes and an unwillingness to accept foreign workers may well be hampering their efforts, and at the rate the industry is growing, it seems that a limited workforce will stunt the industry's potential sooner rather than later.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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