April 20, 2010 2:52 am

Skills shortage threatens German engineering

Germany’s engineering companies, still reeling from the biggest economic crisis in decades, are facing a skills shortage that threatens to undermine the sector’s long-term recovery.

At the Hanover fair, the world’s largest showcase of industrial goods, industrialists warned that the country’s competitiveness could be put into jeopardy by a shortage of engineers and skilled labour.

Gerhard Sturm, owner of ebm-papst, a southern German maker of small engines and fans, said: “There is definitely a shortage. There are simply not enough young people in Germany who are willing to do sweat-inducing engineering studies.”

Michael Paul, executive board member of motor industry supplier ZF Friedrichshafen, said: “We expect that we will need to hire hundreds of engineers in the next two to three years. We are focusing a lot of attention to the question of how we can attract them.”

Willi Fuchs, head of VDI, the engineers’ association, said that even in 2009, when the sector experienced a sales drop of a quarter, there had been a shortage of 34,000 engineers.

The battle for qualified engineers is part of a larger problem in Germany.

Prognos, the research institute, said in a recent report that the country’s job market would be short of almost 3m professionals by 2015.

The warnings came as managers at the Hanover fair displayed some wary optimism about their business prospects. Orders have been on the rise for several months.

But Thomas Keidel, head and owner of Mahr, a maker of metering devices, warned that the majority of the incoming orders were still due to restocking. “The next months will show if we will face a backlash or if the rising orders are sustainable.”

In parts of German industry, such as textile machines, production has picked up faster, giving rise to the need to hire engineers.

Mr Paul said: “In the past year, companies were focused on cutting their fixed costs. But now the skills shortage is coming back to the fore.”

German industrial companies have mostly held on to their workforces during the crisis, introducing more flexible working measures.

But analysts said the skills shortage was hitting the Mittelstand (small- and medium-sized family-run companies) hard.

“Small- and medium-sized companies will lose out in this race for skills. This is a great danger for our economy as the Mittelstand is our backbone,” Mr Fuchs said.

Germany’s engineering sector employs 909,000 people and is dominated by a swath of family-owned companies. They are often situated in far-flung villages, giving its managers a headache over how to lure well-qualified workers from large cities.

Some have reverted to unorthodox measures.

Axel Barten, owner and managing director of Achenbach Buschhütten, a producer of rolling mills in Kreuztal, almost an hour’s drive from Cologne, said the company could cope by offering a combined trainee and university studies programme.

Students are being trained at the company while they continue their studies, getting a trainee salary and even a loan from the company to pay for university fees.

As Germany’s rapidly ageing population is threatening to exacerbate the skills shortage further in coming years, some companies even launched programmes to attract small children to natural sciences.

Siemens is supplying research “toolkits” to kindergartens around the world, and ZF Friedrichshafen has launched a “knowledge workshop”, to bring children closer to technical sciences.

After a 25 per cent drop in applications for its trainee programmes, ebm-papst decided to run its Hanover fair exhibition stand entirely by 12 trainees.

The trainees like it. “It is great that we have been given such a large responsibility. This experience will help me a lot in my job,” said 18-year-old Irina Chrzan.

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