Germany is suffering from a lack of 15,000 engineers. Making the profession more appealing could be a boon for German companies and help boost the economy, according to one of the country's engineering groups.
"Made in Germany" - internationally renowned, but Germans themselves don't believe they are innovative
Though Christoph Meilgen had to face rejection letters similar to those seen by Germany's five million unemployed, his doctorate in mechanical engineering helped him into a position many unemployed dream of: being able to turn down two positions and hold out for a job he wanted.
"Companies want practical, technical knowledge that goes well beyond what you get in school," said Meilgen, who took at position at LVQ-WP in the industrial Ruhr region of western Germany after defending his thesis at Kaiserslautern's Technical University this month. "But there's a need for engineers, you don't need to take any offer."
Meilgen's position is not an unusual one for recent graduates with engineering credentials. Seventy-three percent of middle-sized German companies said they see finding qualified employees as their most demanding task for the next five years, according to a February poll by TNS Infratest.
Germany's position as a technological leader could be in danger if companies aren't able to find skilled new hires, according to Michael Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Association of German Engineers (VDI).
"Germany today is lacking 15,000 engineers, 11,500 in small and middle-sized business alone," he said. "The difficulties many research and development companies are having filling positions could impair or even hold off innovation."
Program encourages more students to "make things"
After watching the number of students entering engineering fields drop 12 percent since a high of 87,542 in 2003, the VDI, along with a group of 44 partners, including Deutsche Welle as a media partner, decided to start an initiative called Sachen machen (Make things).
Financed by the VDI and its partners, the program, slated to last at least five years, has set itself the goal of making Germany the home of new technology by 2015 by achieving the world's per capita leader in graduates with math, technical, IT and natural science degrees; employees in research and development; research spending and patent registration.
"We cannot afford not to be successful," Schwarz said, referring to the program's goal of boosting interest in technical fields among students and optimizing cooperation between science and businesses. "If there are no new comers to fill the positions, products and services won't be able to be offered."
Some engineers still can't find work
That's an argument Germany's 64,000 unemployed engineers don't understand. A number of factors are keeping these engineers from finding work, according to the German Federal Labor Office's Beate Raabe.
"Many of the unemployed are over 50 and some companies have the preconception that they do not have the most up-to-date technical knowledge," she said in an interview with Münchner Merkur newspaper.
While companies are looking for mechanical and electrical engineers, the market for architects and civil engineers is saturated, creating a mismatch between what they can offer and what is needed, Schwarz added.
Employment affects more than just engineers
The ones that do find a job can usually look forward to above-average salaries. While recent graduate Meilgen declined to say how much he would earn at his new job, starting salaries range from 30,000 euros to 45,000 euros ($35,938 to $53,908). More experienced employees average 65,000 euros a year, according to VDI statistics. In 2003, the most recently recorded year, the average German employee earned 26,700 euros, according to Germany's Federal Statistics Office.
The social benefits of getting open engineering positions filled could be a windfall for Germany's sluggish economy and languishing labor market, Schwarz added.
Newly employed engineers along with their above-average paychecks and buying power typically have the potential to create 2.3 additional jobs in other fields, including production and retail, theoretically leading to 35,000 new jobs if the VDI's estimate of 15,000 open engineering positions were filled.
Germans critical of innovation Made in Germany
Other than getting jobs filled, one of Sachen machen's most difficult tasks will be convincing Germans of their country's abilities, which many foreign countries already recognize.
Despite having registered more patents than any other European country, a 2004 VDI survey showed only 6 percent of Germans ranked their native land as the most innovative. Japan and the United States respectively scored 40 percent and 21 percent.
Internationally, however, Germany's engineers continue to enjoy the positive reputation earned on the back of names like Mercedes, Zeiss and Siemens. A 2005 study by Ernst & Young reported that 28 percent of international companies surveyed ranked German employees as Europe's most qualified.
"We cannot be cheaper than the workers in China, India or Eastern Europe, but we can be better," Sepp Heckmann, chairman of Deutsche Messe said at Sachen machen's opening press conference at the beginning of February. "That's our chance."