A teenager is holding a green circuit board with different wires and colored LEDs towards the camera.
©Universität des Saarlandes / Photo: Oliver Dietze
2023-06-30 publication

Young talent: ’Tis early practice...

...only makes the master – so goes the oft-quoted passage from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. The saying rings especially true for future engineers. The problem is that too many young people have no interest to build on. Enrollment is falling dramatically for both vocational training and university programs in electrical engineering and information technology. This does not bode well for the vision of an all-electric society. How can we attract the next generation of experts?

By Martin Schmitz-Kuhl

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

The targets are ambitious: Germany wants to – no, Germany must be climate-neutral by 2045. At the latest! That is the bare minimum if the country wants to make a relevant contribution to slowing global warming. For a time, thousands of young people took to the streets every Friday to urge politicians to finally take appropriate action. Fridays for Future and its fight to save the world was the defining theme in 2019 – until the following year, when the coronavirus pandemic dominated the headlines. And today? The virus is no longer an issue, but young people are rarely marching to demand climate policy changes. Many are frustrated because, although measures have been taken – and above all, promised – they will not be enough to achieve the defined targets.

And where are the students now who made up the majority of climate protesters in 2019? We can safely say where they are not: in the seminar rooms and lecture halls of German universities, studying electrical engineering and information technology. Despite the great career prospects electrical engineers have, enrollment levels have been steadily declining for years. Only 3.5 percent of all high school graduates decide to study electrical engineering, which represents a one-third decline over the last ten years. “This is dramatic and should set off alarm bells,” warns Dr. Michael Schanz, labor market expert at VDE. Today, only around 8,000 students who successfully complete their studies are available to fill roughly 20,000 jobs per year.

Meanwhile, there’s actually a fairly direct relationship between climate change and the drop in student numbers – one that’s perhaps more direct than the young people of Fridays for Future are aware of. Without electrical engineers, there will be no energy transition. Nor will there be a transition to alternative resources, heating sources or decarbonized mobility, since we need experts to develop the key information technology and microelectronic components involved. Assuming we don’t want to achieve climate neutrality based solely on sacrifice and austerity, doing so will only be possible if the necessary technologies are developed and then quickly implemented. However, this cannot happen without the appropriate specialists – as the subject of heat pumps is making painfully evident at the moment.


Whether joint projects or own experiments: in the SinnTec school laboratory at Saarland University, children and young people sharpen their sense of technology and get to know technical sensory organs, how they work and possible areas of application.

| ©Universität des Saarlandes / Foto: Oliver Dietze

Plenty of STEM funding programs, but still not enough

In order to introduce young people – and girls in particular – to these subjects, it’s important to get them involved as early as possible and stoke their interest. Politicians, of course, have known this for a long time. Funding for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been high on the political agenda for years. Just recently in Germany, Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger emphasized the following point: “In order to master the major challenges of the future, such as climate change and digitalization, we must get more children and young people excited about STEM.” Last summer, she announced the STEM Action Plan 2.0, in which her ministry is bringing together various measures to fund education in these areas. In addition to the “Haus der kleinen Forscher” (“House of Young Researchers”) initiative, school competitions like “Jugend forscht” (“Youth Research”), the nationwide “MINTvernetzt” (“STEMnetworked”) office and the “#MINTmagie” (“STEMmagic”) awareness campaign, the funding chiefly supports STEM clusters. These are intended as a way to establish creative learning venues and boost access to extracurricular educational opportunities. There are currently 53, and plans are in place for 15 to 20 more. “This ministry is providing a total of €12 million over five years for this purpose,” stated Stark-Watzinger.

As remarkable as this federal commitment is – education in Germany is primarily handled at the state level – it’s not much more than a drop in the ocean. In other words, the topic of STEM funding is not as high a priority as it should be in the country in light of the dramatic situation. “The current STEM Young Scientists Barometer shows that we urgently need to keep stepping up our efforts to inspire young people to study these subjects in Germany,” says Dr. Christoph Meinel, Director of the Hasso Plattner Institute and chairman of the MINT Zukunft association. “Schools are especially important here, since that’s where we lay the foundation for STEM skills and introduce students to the joy of shaping the real and virtual worlds.”

From the street to the lecture hall

VDE Präsident Alf Henryk Wulf

VDE Präsident Alf Henryk Wulf

| Sarah Kastner / VDE
2023-06-30 publication

An appeal from VDE President Alf Henryk Wulf

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Electrical engineering unpopular among the STEM subjects

Yet the future prospects for STEM are anything but rosy, particularly in schools. The shortage of teachers, for example, is even higher in STEM than in other subjects. While this is partly because many STEM teachers are reaching retirement age, the number of teachers in training who choose STEM subjects is also decreasing. What’s more, many of them drop out without finishing their studies. Last year, for instance, the University of Potsdam announced that of the 42 young people who had arrived to study for a teaching degree in mathematics in 2015, only nine had graduated. Just two of the original 17 physics students were left. It’s also hardly possible for people switching from other careers to fill this gap, at least not with the necessary quality. While there may be plenty of unemployed artists or musicians with no educational training who at least have the proficiency needed to teach art or music competently, the situation is fundamentally different in mathematics, computer science and the natural sciences. The labor market in these fields is already tight. At best, this leaves a recruitment pool consisting largely of retirees.

VDE labor market expert Michael Schanz points to a further problem: “In STEM projects, our work as electrical engineers often plays a very minor role, if any at all. Even when it does feature in the case studies explored in class, the name of our profession tends to go unmentioned.” While engineering is one of the letters of the English acronym, Schanz fears that the way MINT (the German equivalent of STEM) lumps electrical engineering into its “T” for “technology” could result in the subject being neglected. “Even though we’re the ones who will have to accomplish the transition to an all-electric society!” he points out.

Best Practice in Saarland

r. Andreas Schütze is standing next to a small computer in a bright corridor. Next to him is a teenager.

Dr. Andreas Schütze in the school laboratory

| ©Universität des Saarlandes / Foto: Oliver Dietze
2023-06-30 publication

For VDE Saar chairman Dr. Andreas Schütze, fostering young talent is hardly a hobby – it's an important focus of his work.

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A distorted picture of electrical engineering and information technology

A series of studies on the image of electrical engineering that was recently published by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) in cooperation with VDE shows where this trend may lead. It found that most young people have no idea what an electrical engineer actually does. “The vast majority have no concept of electrical engineering, and they certainly don’t consider it a possible subject at university,” the study explains. For example, most of the young people surveyed believe that electrical engineering is more of a trade that involves maintaining and repairing things. They also think of it as an occupation in which you tinker away alone and rarely collaborate with other people. In addition, they see it as uncreative and boring – not as a job in which you can do something really meaningful. “If young people have a distorted view of what distinguishes engineers’ actual everyday work, we shouldn’t be surprised if no one wants to become one anymore. It doesn’t help if we’re the only ones who value our work,” says Schanz.

Bolstering efforts with competitions and action days

For more than 20 years, VDE has been demonstrating that things can also be done differently – and more successfully – with the INVENT a CHIP school competition, where participants from grades 9 to 13 can present microchips they have designed themselves. Those who get a taste of electrical engineering here can often hardly imagine studying anything else (for more, see p. 18–19). Five years ago, Labs for Chips was also launched. This competition is aimed not at children and young people themselves, but at people and initiatives that want to get them excited about (micro)electronics. VDE sponsors projects like this with prize money, as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research does with INVENT a CHIP. Some examples from this year have involved building replicas of traffic lights and lighting for a smart city, producing air quality sensors, soldering electronic cubes or even programming robotic toy beetles for elementary school children.

However, the topic is also on the agenda in VDE’s regional associations, from the VDE Bavaria student forum and the VDE Rhein-Ruhr school action day to all the projects of VDE Saar (see opposite page). Other VDE activities include Mouse Day, when the testing and certification institute opens its doors to the beloved German children’s TV show Sendung mit der Maus. The event is always loads of fun – not only for the VDE staff involved, but especially for the large number of children who get to accompany the mouse through various laboratories. And yet, all these committed efforts have not been enough to turn the enrollment numbers around. So, what to do? “We have no choice but to try even harder,” says VDE President Alf Henryk Wulf. And to hope that the importance and urgency of this issue will get through to more and more young people. What would those involved in Fridays for Future say? There is no planet B!

Martin Schmitz-Kuhl is a freelance author from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and an editor of VDE dialog.

Laborsituation E-LAB live des VDE Instituts

The VDE Institute’s E-LAB Live can be found at major trade fairs or events such as the Science Days. Children learn basic electrical engineering skills in a playful manner under the guidance of trained university students.

| VDE Institut