stock.adobe.com/anke thomass
2023-06-30 publication

Degrees: Searching for students

Very few young people choose electrical engineering and information technology at universities and colleges of applied sciences – and many of those few abandon their studies without finishing. Teachers, businesses and organizations like VDE agree: these subjects need to become more attractive again. They are taking some creative and unusual steps to make that happen.

By Manuel Heckel

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

It’s not so much the problem that is new as the efforts to remedy it. This May, for example, BASF launched a dual study program in electrical engineering with a focus on energy technology. The Ludwigshafen-based chemical giant is proud of its progress in the energy transition, with the generation, storage, transmission and distribution of renewable electricity playing a key role. “Today’s vocational education and training will shape tomorrow’s world,” says Markus Hermann, who heads BASF’s vocational training programs. “That’s why we’re constantly refining our portfolio, adding new occupations to it and staying on top of our current training efforts, as well.”

In the end, the company’s dual study program is also a way for it to help itself by helping others. BASF is facing the same predicament as the rest of Germany: the demand for new electrical engineers is enormous, and recruiters are struggling to find them. VDE reports that every year brings a shortfall of around 12,000 recently graduated engineers in the country. Although some 18,800 new students started courses in electrical engineering and information technology in 2021, many of them are not making it to graduation day, much less continuing on to a master’s degree. This is according to VDE labor market expert Michael Schanz, who puts the proportion of dropouts at 60 to 70%. The figures also show that only 3.5% of all new students in Germany are choosing electrical engineering and information technology. Schanz says that in 2012, it was 5.4%.

It’s a trend that has long worried scientists, business figures and industry associations alike. So, what’s the solution? University staff complain that between teaching, research and industry-driven projects, they don’t have time to address the lack of new recruits in a strategic way. Everyone agrees, however, that it’s time to act. It’s going to take an analytical approach, creative solutions and, above all, patience. “It’s definitely not a problem you can solve overnight, but we should have gotten started sooner,” says Martina Hofmann, professor of renewable energies at the Aalen University of Applied Sciences and chair of VDE’s Study, Work and Society Committee.

Plenty of choice for new students

The list of study options is long and varied, with more than 30 universities working together in the Faculty Association for Electrical Engineering and Information Technology (FTEI). Then there are the many courses being offered by universities of applied sciences across Germany. The “Hochschulkompass”, a university information portal produced by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), says there are no fewer than 247 bachelor’s degrees in which electrical engineering plays a significant role. Students also have their choice of study locations that stretch all the way from Lübeck in the north to Konstanz in the south, and from Kaiserslautern in the west to Cottbus in the east, with courses ranging from general electrical engineering to industrial engineering for sustainable technologies. Large lecture halls and the big city life or a familiar study environment in a quiet town – in theory, there’s something for everyone.

The problem is that fewer and fewer high school graduates are even considering electrical engineering and information technology in the first place. On behalf of VDE, the FTEI, and the Association of Electrical and Information Engineering Departments, the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) surveyed almost 1,200 current electrical engineering students and more than 100 dropouts, as well as 50 school pupils with top grades in math, physics and computer science – exactly the sort of high potentials you’d think would be destined for corresponding degrees.

Presenting electrical engineering as an attractive career option

Unfortunately, the study revealed that those surveyed have a very distorted perception of electrical engineering as a degree subject. Emblazoned across the cover of the study’s first volume is “Electrical engineers install lights” – a quote from one of the respondents. Most of those surveyed associated the subject with manual tasks, or struggled to imagine what it involved at all. Young people had little idea of exactly what the degree course might cover and what career opportunities it could open up. The survey also showed that potential new students rarely associate electrical engineering with innovation or the industries of the future. “We’ve always advertised how great our degree course is, but never shown people what their everyday work will be like once they graduate,” Hofmann laments.

Meanwhile, the subject is now presenting more attractive career opportunities than perhaps ever before – in small manufacturing businesses and global corporations, and in research and production. They include areas that are of interest and importance to many young people, such as semiconductor development or the expansion of renewable energy. “Young people today are not making the connection between our subject and the big topics of our age,” says Schanz.

One of the first ideas for addressing this involves a campaign to highlight the diverse career paths and everyday work open to young people who choose an electrical engineering degree. VDE wants to lead the campaign itself: “We need to reach a whole generation, and that means there’s no getting around making a push to promote ourselves anymore,” says Schanz. This will include making short clips for social media, for example – the more practically oriented and the closer to popular culture, the better: “I can’t think of a single film where the protagonist is an electrical engineer,” says Hofmann, only half joking.

It’s clear, however, that stepping up promotional efforts like these will mean more work for everyone. BASF, for its part, organizes “speed dating” events for different vocational training paths, holds special campaign days for its dual study courses, attends career fairs and runs HR marketing campaigns on social media. So far, it hasn’t had a problem finding enough students for its dual programs. “Recruiting suitable applicants, however – particularly for engineering subjects – is taking more and more work,” the company reports.

From information events to Instagram: a multichannel approach

Universities are noticing this, too, and staying busy on a variety of marketing channels, from information days to Instagram. One approach is to engage with future students as early as possible. “Working with schools gives us the most leverage,” says Hofmann. “We need to succeed in institutionalizing that aspect.”

The Mittweida University of Applied Sciences has introduced a “speed bachelor” in an attempt to do just that: this summer event will allow pupils in grades 9 to 11 to try out different degree courses. Michael Kuhl, dean of electrical engineering automation at the university, looks forward to any opportunity to raise awareness of electrical engineering and information technology through such events for future students. “We need to draw more attention to all the things you can achieve as an engineer,” he asserts.

Practical orientation and genuine enthusiasm

Kuhl is currently promoting a brand new degree in responsible consumption and production. Along with basic knowledge of electrical engineering, the curriculum includes modules in intercultural communication, a semester at a partner university in Europe and a final thesis that students will write while experiencing work at a global company.

It’s an exciting program that attempts to put together an attractive package for both new students and companies. “We want to motivate students to consider their international career right from the outset,” says Kuhl. “That’s also something industry now expects from graduates.” Rather than simply promoting electrical engineering as a broad discipline, universities are increasingly offering more focused courses like those at Mittweida. This often involves interdisciplinary approaches.

The strategy is designed to make the content of courses easier to grasp for potential applicants and give universities a simple way to set themselves apart from the competition. But however bachelor’s degrees are labeled, there’s no getting around the need to spend the first few semesters covering the basics of electrical engineering and mathematics. This carries the risk of students becoming disillusioned after some time, or simply finding the material too difficult and giving up.

VDE Young Net: The fun factor

Motivating students and reducing dropout rates is also the aim of VDE Young Net. “This is the next generation of experts and managers,” points out the network’s head, Rosalia Virga. VDE Young Net isn’t all about work, either; it mixes industry events and training with social get-togethers and visits to potential employers. The key is to combine vocational orientation and industry networking with a healthy dose of fun. According to Michael Schanz, the links between knowledge, practical implementation and networking should be ingrained in the early semesters of degree courses much more often. “It creates a source of motivation that can help students overcome the obstacles they experience, particularly when they’re just getting started.”

The dropout rate is a major source of concern for businesses and universities. However, the answer to improving students’ motivation could lie in the same place as the solutions to the subject’s image problem: namely in incorporating as much practical orientation as possible. In recent years, numerous companies have embraced dual study courses because of how they enable students to experience related jobs when they aren’t attending lectures. The combination of theoretical study at a university and real-life practice during their time in the workplace “reduces the orientation graduates need once they are hired and encourages them to build a strong bond with the company at an early stage,” says BASF.

The model also has drawbacks, though. “Students often struggle with the dual workload,” notes Markus Zink, professor of energy and high-voltage technology at the Technical University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt (THWS) and a VDE liaison lecturer. Zink is an advocate for ever closer links with local industry. Hardly a week goes by without energy and utility providers, local authorities and power grid operators contacting him with their ideas for joint projects that can benefit students. “My main job isn’t to teach as much expert knowledge as possible,” says Zink. “It’s to get as many students as possible excited about my area of research.”

Manuel Heckel is a freelance business journalist in Cologne.