Elektrotechnikstudium
IZI, Fotograph Christian Rudnik
2022-10-01 Webcontent

More than putting up the lights! 

Young adults are not attracted to electrotechnical professions – but they often don’t know what the jobs actually involve. VDE expert Dr. Michael Schanz and study director Dr. Maya Götz explain how VDE and the university faculties are working on this image problem and finding solutions with a study. 

By Peter Ilg 

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Editor-in-Chief VDE dialog

Talent pipeline crisis

Digitalization and transformation need more electrical engineers. But with falling numbers of graduates in the subject, there are fewer and fewer of them. Technical subjects per se are not an unpopular option, though, as the comparison with computer science shows. While electrical engineering and information technology degrees are on the decline, computer science continues to attract growing numbers (see the graph on page 36). This suggests that electrical engineering and information technology have a particular image problem among young people. 

Dr. Michael Schanz, labor market expert at VDE, and the Fachbereichstag Elektrotechnik und Informationstechnik (a council of electrical engineering and information technology departments) wanted to investigate. They commissioned a major study led by Dr. Maya Götz, a media studies scholar who heads the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) at Bavaria’s public broadcaster. The study surveyed 658 graduating high schoolers, 50 with a top grade in math, physics and information technology (high potentials), as well as 1,195 university students largely in their first or second semester in electrical engineering and information technology. The results – some surprising, others less so – paint an alarming picture. 

University student numbers

Less popular than ever before: Student numbers from competing subjects show that 2021 was the worst year ever for electrical engineering.  

University student numbers
VDE Berechnungen, Statistisches Bundesamt
Dr. Maya Götz

“Many already rule out electrical engineering and information technology before even researching potential degrees.” Dr. Maya Götz, study director. 

| IZI

What is the image of electrical engineering and information technology degrees among young people? 

Dr. Maya Götz: It’s not a good one. When they picture people working in electrical engineering and information technology, school leavers largely imagine men dressed in gray, or perhaps someone in a boilersuit hunched over an array of cables and sockets. These are off-putting images as they don’t make it look like an attractive profession. That was an unmistakable attitude among the high potentials we spoke to.  

Dr. Michael Schanz: The big problem is that we don’t have enough engineers to do the many tasks in electrical engineering and information technology. We can’t do much about demographic factors or the changing numbers of high school graduates, but we can change the image of the profession. It leaves a lot to be desired. So we should create a new positive picture from scratch. 

Where does this image problem among potential students come from? 

Götz: They have a clear idea of what they want from their career. It includes having enough money to live well, being taken seriously, having creative tasks and a healthy work-life balance. They imagine electrical engineers performing manual work on electrical equipment. Some even think electrical engineers plan and install the Christmas lights around town. This shows they have a completely inaccurate idea about what the profession involves. They can’t match up their real career wishes with what they incorrectly imagine electrical engineering to be.  

Why is their picture so unrealistic? Are they getting information about the degree from the wrong places? 

Götz: Half of the people choosing a degree research their study options on the Internet. Considerably fewer get information from the real world by asking family members or acquaintances (see graph on page 37). Some degree courses, especially electrical engineering and information technology, have a mediocre online presence. On university websites, for example, they are presented in quite a serious way: there is a lot of unfamiliar technical vocab and the descriptions are hard to understand. That just doesn’t appeal to prospective students. The websites scare students away rather than exciting them. 

The study asked high school students about their grades in subjects that are relevant for electrical engineering and information technology – math, physics, information technology – and separately analyzed the answers given by the high potentials. Do the top students have a different picture from those with lower grades?  

Götz: The basic problem is the same. Both groups have the impression that electrical engineers just carry out instructions or check and repair electrical devices. Many high potentials – the people with the highest grades – see themselves more in project management and developing technical solutions. That is actually very close to what electrical engineers really do, but young people don’t realize that unfortunately. The students with the next-best grades in these subjects also don’t want a career plugging in cables, as they imagine it would involve. So many have already ruled out studying electrical engineering and information technology before they even research potential degrees. 

Michael-Schanz

“The term electrical engineering is out of fashion and young people don’t understand what it means.” Dr. Michael Schanz, VDE labor market expert. 

| VDE

Among those who do start a degree in this area, many switch courses, move to a vocational traineeship or drop out.

Schanz: The number of students who do not complete the degree has now reached a sorry record of over 60%. We can’t afford that given the fast-growing shortage of electrical engineers. So we have to investigate what exactly the reason is. My suspicion is that there are new factors at play, such as the age of the students. People can now take their school-leaving exams a year earlier in nearly all German states. These days, young people sometimes already start university at age 17 or 18. That means they often lack the necessary maturity. Even a small emotional setback can lead them to give up their degree course. 

According to your calculations, there is a shortfall in electrical engineers of around 11,700 a year. So far, it’s been possible to fill this by recruiting from abroad.  

Schanz: But the demand for electrical engineers is going up and supply is going down. The gap has never been so wide. The foreign electrical engineers we recruit mainly come from other industrialized countries. But these countries are increasingly facing the same demographic change that we are, and they also need more and more engineers to work on digitalization, the shift to green mobility and the expansion of renewable energy. So they are unlikely to want to keep providing us with as many electrical engineers in future. If we can’t fill the gap with our own young people, then companies won’t be able to fulfill their orders. That could endanger progress on the big issues of our time. 

The German Economic Institute (IW) recorded a record number of unfilled positions in STEM subjects this spring. Careers in energy and electricity account for the biggest shortfall of 82,500 and IT professions for the next-biggest of 60,600. Energy, electricity and IT seem to be the biggest worries on the German labor market. 

Schanz: They are. Our world is becoming more electrical, digital and sustainable. So electrical engineering and information technology will become an even bigger part of every area of our lives. That suggests that this is where the most new jobs will be – and that there are excellent future career prospects. 

Computer science is the best comparison subject. Electrical engineering and information technology are falling far behind it in the competition for students. 

Schanz: Computer science is in a better position and finds it easier to recruit new students. It feels like we hear the word “digitalization” a hundred times a day, and most people associate it with computer science. It’s the same with terms like smartphones, tablets and laptops. Young people find computer science sexy, whereas they think electrical engineering and information technology are stuffy and old-fashioned. Industry representatives have not managed to look at their big competitor – computer science – and modernize their own image.  

How young people choose careers

Browsing careers: Students aged between 14 and 21 were asked where they got the idea for their aspired career.  

How young people choose careers
VDE Berechnungen, Statistisches Bundesamt

Can the image of electrical engineering and information technology be turned around? 

Götz: It’s a diverse and interesting professional field where people can make a difference. The problem is, potential students don’t know that. So companies in the industry should start by making clear what they can offer the young generation and identify what makes them an attractive option. If both these important points are also communicated in a way that will make today’s young people listen, we can turn the image problem around. 

What can universities do? 

Götz: They should present themselves in a clear and attractive way to their target group. We mustn’t forget: we’re talking about school students aged between 15 and 18. Courses must be advertised in a way that appeals to this age group and is also gender-sensitive. It’s also important to offer much clearer guidance. Young people often don’t know the ins and outs of the different types of degrees and vocational components, the difference between universities and universities of applied sciences, or which university focuses on which areas. Young people want an overview – for example clear profiles of the degree and later career. It would make sense for businesses to work together with the universities that offer these courses and provide potential students with some guidance – but this really needs to be communicated via the right medium. 

Social networks? 

Schanz: That’s right. Generation Z, those born around the new millennium, are used to finding information on social media. And they’re used to the important information coming to them – so push messages rather than pull messages. When they search online, the information has to be quick to find, easy to understand and communicated in an appealing way. This form of communication between companies and universities on the one hand and potential students on the other isn’t working. That’s why it needs to change. Digital communication with Generation Alpha, those born from 2010 onwards, will be even more extreme. So adjusting today is an investment in the future. 

Wouldn’t it be enough to find a better name for electrical engineering and information technology? 

Schanz: The term “electrical engineering” worked very well some 130 years ago. But now it’s out of fashion and young people don’t understand what it means. It’s a controversial topic but we should think about what we want to call ourselves in the future so as to attract more interest with an appealing and consistent name for the degree course and career. People might then realize straight away that electrical engineering isn’t about putting up the Christmas lights.