Germany’s new federal government has ambitious plans. Among them all, none has a higher priority than the energy transition, which is to ensure that about 80 percent of our power is generated from renewable sources by as early as 2030. This will take enormous efforts in generating, storing and transporting solar and wind power. It will also involve the decarbonization of industry and the conversion to climate-neutral heat generation. “We’re hitting the turbo,” says the new Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Robert Habeck (Green Party). His cabinet colleague, Dr. Volker Wissing (FDP), is just as ambitious. In the same time frame, the Federal Minister for Digital and Transport is promising at least 15 million electric cars, along with the expanded charging infrastructure they will require. According to Wissing, a gigabit strategy should also enable Germany to finally take the decisive step into the digital age – as a “booster” for our domestic economy and administration.
Fine words, but they need to be followed by actions in the current legislative period. Many hurdles need to be overcome on this long path. Some have already been discussed exhaustively, such as cutting the wearisome bureaucracy and accelerating permit procedures. Others, though, have not gotten enough of the spotlight – including the issue of the skilled labor shortage.
A state of emergency, especially in electrical engineering
The economy, industry, administration and society are not simply going to transform themselves. To put it another way, people in Germany understand that changes are necessary, but the workforce they will require is another matter. A recent report on STEM fields by the German Economic Institute (IW) documents this misalignment. It also makes it clear, however, that the problem is not equally acute across the board: the workforce gap is much larger in some STEM professions than in others. The largest shortage just happens to to be in energy/electrical professions – the specialist area that will be particularly important for the German economy and industry in the future.
“Our industry is racing headlong towards a shortage of experts,” warns Dr. Michael Schanz, an expert in the labor market at VDE. He has collated many frightening statistics in the last several months for the recently published report “Labor Market 2022 – Electrical Engineers”. In an interview with VDE dialog, he describes the current situation for this particular professional group as a “drama in four acts”. The first act centers on the number of people reaching retirement, which can be forecast quite precisely for the coming years. According to Schanz’s calculations, we can assume that 13,200 electrical engineers will reach retirement age in 2022 and the following years, leaving vacancies that will need to be filled by new workers. This means 32 percent more people will be entering retirement than six years ago.
That brings us to the second act, which Schanz says has to do with the impending increase in corresponding demand. After all, it’s not as though we'll need fewer skilled laborers in the future, but rather far more. One of the many reasons for this is that workers are no longer required in the traditional electrical industry alone. Electrical and information technology is in high demand everywhere – from the energy transition to Industry 4.0, from electromobility to autonomous driving, from digitalization to artificial intelligence. According to the VDE study, the average additional requirement in the last five years was about 6,200 workers per year, and this will presumably increase further in the next five years. If you add these 6,200 additional workers to the 13,200 who are retiring, you arrive at a total of 19,400 new recruits needed in such professions. “There’s no way that the universities in this country can manage that on their own,” fears Schanz, who is also an expert in education.
Occupational decline greater than ever
The third act of the drama relates to how the “attrition rates in the subject of electrical engineering and information technology have climbed to dizzying heights, but gone unnoticed by many,” as Dr. Schanz puts it. In 1993, the attrition rate – that is, the number of people who break off their degree program or change subjects – stood at just 30 percent. This was primarily due to universities of applied sciences, where students completed their degrees much more frequently than their colleagues at traditional universities. However, that situation changed in the following years. In 2008, 50 percent of students quit their degree programs at both types of university. At present, the rate is as high as 63 percent, meaning it has more than doubled since 1993. This often has nothing to do with the degree programs themselves. Subjects that do not have any particular access restrictions – electrical and information technology, for instance – are popular with people who do not actually intend to complete their degree. Some enroll at universities to gain student status, which enables them to claim Germany’s child allowance for longer or to obtain a semester ticket for the local public transport system.
But trying to explain the attrition rate merely with these sorts of effects would mean ignoring how serious the situation is. And so we come to the fourth and final act of the drama: the falling numbers of students starting courses in electrical engineering and information technology. The figures from the year 2020 are particularly eye-catching. They reveal a decline of 14.5 percent compared to the previous year.
Information technology gaining in popularity
Part of this loss can be attributed to the general decline in the numbers of new students, which was bound to fall anyway due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Lower Saxony, an entire school-leaving year is also unaccounted for due to the change from an eight-year to nine-year education program. However, the losses are particularly severe in electrical technology and related subjects. This can be seen in the figures from the year 2021, when the total of 13,100 students enrolling in the subjects of electrical and information technology was 4.3 percent lower than in the previous year. The numbers in mechanical engineering and process technology (-9.2 percent) and civil engineering (-3 percent) are also far lower. On the other hand, enrollments in information technology increased by 6.4 percent, which rules out a general decline in technical degree subjects. Instead, students are switching to a supposedly more modern subject.
To map this problem, Dr. Schanz has developed a popularity index for technical degree programs. It demonstrates that 10 percent of all new students chose the subject of information technology in 2010. Today, information technology comes in at 13 percent, making it the most popular technical degree program. In contrast, the figures for electrical engineering fell from about 5.4 percent to just 3.5 percent at present. “That means we lost a good third of our popularity within ten years,” explains Schanz, who warns: “That is dramatic and should be a wake-up call for us.”
The VDE education expert aims to find out the reasons for this in another study, but it was not yet available at this issue’s editorial deadline (see page 31). The only evident point so far is that a great deal of potential is being lost due to the unpopularity of electrical engineering, especially among women. This was also demonstrated by the “Ingenieurmonitor” presented at the start of the year by the German Economic Institute; this publication is issued regularly on behalf of the VDI. According to the report, the proportion of women in professions related to civil engineering (32.4 percent) and information technology (16.3 percent) is rising continuously. In the electrical engineering professions, however, the proportion stands at just 9.8 percent. Schanz discovered during his study that the numbers of new female students had shown positive development, rising from 10 percent in 2010 to about 17 percent in 2021. However: “Other engineering disciplines and information technology have been far more successful in recruiting female students,” he reveals.
Looking at the field from the perspective of those who work in it, the unattractive image of electrical engineering seems hard to understand at first. Although the subject is considered difficult and challenging, it ultimately promises a job that is exciting, resistant to most crises and generally very well paid. Electrical engineering also lies at the heart of many topics that are trendy and hotly debated at the moment. “Every day, people hear, read or watch news about all the challenges that are looming ahead of us,” says a confounded Schanz, referring to everything from climate change to digitalization. “And yet somehow they simply don’t associate these issues with our profession, even though electrical engineers are what these exact areas need more than anything.”