Engineers are considered pretty cool in Germany. Not movie idol or rock star cool, perhaps, but they do enjoy a certain status. Engineers are generally admired, respected and appreciated by the public. Internationally, German engineering is synonymous with high-quality workmanship, innovation and precision. Moreover, the profession commands relatively high salaries. What’s not to like?
And yet … many talented, and mostly young, German engineers are joining a growing exodus of doctors, academics and other professionals in search of greener pastures abroad. Last fall’s release of an annual government report on emigration and immigration set in bold relief the extent of the so-called “brain drain.” In 2005, a record 144,815 Germans left the country for lives—and livelihoods—in other nations, a 32.3 percent jump from 2001. And the widespread perception, based on a plethora of anecdotal accounts, is that many of those new expatriates are highly trained professionals. Meanwhile, just 128,100 Germans returned from overseas, 50,000 fewer than the year before.
In a country of 82 million people with a workforce that totals 43.3 million, those numbers aren’t huge. But the trend has alarmed business and political leaders who are counting on young professionals to jump-start Germany’s moribund economy in an era of globalization. “It leads to a loss of qualified and motivated staff,” bemoans Oliver Heinkaus, director of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce’s labor market and migration practice. Indeed, 16 percent of German companies report that they cannot find qualified personnel to fill key jobs. That’s bad news for a nation that boasts Europe’s largest—and the world’s fifth largest—economy, especially since growth already is crawling at a 0.9 percent snail’s pace.
What has fueled this flight? German engineers cite myriad reasons, including a sclerotic labor market, rampant joblessness (now at 10.2 percent) and high taxes (particularly social welfare costs). Of course, those factors are also big contributors to Germany’s slo-mo economy, which is still recovering from the enormous costs of reunification in 1990. Young professionals also complain that it’s difficult to juggle career and family in Germany.
Susanna Schmidt, a German Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, wants to return to Europe but not home, where she would be expected to put her career on hold for several years if she has children. Although Schmidt is leaning toward moving to Sweden or Norway, the most popular destinations for departing professionals are the United States and Switzerland, followed by Austria and the United Kingdom.
For industries that rely heavily on engineers—and most do—the brain drain is exacerbating an already acute shortage of talent. There are about 1 million engineers working in Germany, yet 20 percent of engineering job openings go unfilled. That currently translates to around 22,000 vacancies. Most large corporations, including DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and Bosch, can still attract most of the engineering talent they need, says Sven Renkel, spokesman for the Association of German Engineers (VDI), because they can offer fatter paychecks and are nationally known. But around two-thirds of German engineers work for companies of 500 or fewer employees, and those firms are struggling to find and hire engineers. In a 2005 report, VDI calculated that for every engineering job, another 2.3 people are employed in other positions; the domino effect of having so many engineering jobs go unfilled blew a nearly $4 billion hole in the economy.
Of course, there are other reasons why good engineers are so hard to find in Germany. Many companies have mandatory retirement policies that kick in at age 55. So, every year, 60,000 engineers who are still in their prime head for the door. Renkel calls that a huge waste of knowledge and experience. It’s also a loss the country’s universities cannot replenish anytime soon. Schools turned out 37,000 engineering graduates in 2004, 25 percent fewer than in 1996. A brief spike in enrollments should bump up those totals in the short term; but in 2005, enrollments resumed their downward drift.
Too Many But Too Few
Ironically, among the millions of unemployed Germans are 65,000 engineers. “High unemployment and labor shortages can coincide,” observes Heinkaus of the Chambers of Industry and Commerce. “There is no exception concerning engineers.” Often, the jobless can’t fill vacancies because their talents don’t match the company’s needs. “You can’t change a construction engineer into an aerospace engineer,” Renkel wryly notes.
Moreover, many of the idled engineers are in their mid-40s to early 50s and are often shunned as too entrenched or expensive. Reiner Anderl, vice president of the Technische Universitat Darmstadt and a professor of mechanical engineering, says that many middle-aged engineers failed to keep up with rapid changes in technologies, eroding their attractiveness. Companies would rather recruit younger, more up-to-date engineers, who also command lower starting salaries.
Would retraining help some of them? Perhaps. But, there are no national schemes to help highly trained—but jobless—workers learn new skills. Idled engineers must make the decision to return to the classroom on their own. And, currently, there are no organized efforts by universities to cater to them. But Anderl is convinced that German technical universities soon will see “continuous education as a market” worth tapping, because more are starting to charge tuition.
Thomas Winkelmann, head of recruitment at Continental, a multinational tire and auto parts manufacturer in Hanover, certainly doesn’t do much talent-hunting among jobless engineers, even though it has 80 engineering jobs it can’t fill. Why? Half the engineers the firm does hire are either electrical engineers or are needed to work on tire and rubber technology. “Most (unemployed engineers) have no experience in rubber technology,” Winkelmann explains; their skills don’t match Continental’s needs. Of course, neither do the skills of the young grads the company does hire—most of them from industrial, mechanical or chemical engineering programs. Continental spends significant sums training these new recruits, which is one reason it is loath to retrain older engineers who expect higher pay and may retire soon.
Even as the brain drain saps Germany’s engineering talent pool, its industries prize engineers with overseas experience. A foreign stint can burnish credentials, making them more attractive to employers. That’s one of the reasons Schmidt, 29, came to Virginia Tech. “It’ll help my career, even if I don’t go back to Germany,” she says. A recently published report, Global Engineering Excellence, recognized the value of international experience—and the barriers employers face in tapping it. Written by an international team of engineering academics, the Continental-funded study concluded, in part, that “transnational mobility for engineering students, researchers and professionals needs to become a priority.” Heinkaus sees “international mobility of labor” as desirable. “But mobility must not be a one-way street. That means Germany has to become more attractive for qualified foreign staff.”
And therein lies the problem for Germany’s global-minded employers. Federal restrictions make it “difficult to hire experts from abroad,” notes Anderl, particularly from non-European Union nations. For instance, job applicants either must prove they have skills no German worker has, or be guaranteed a minimum salary of nearly $110,500. Not surprisingly, only 900 immigrants managed to clear that hurdle in 2005. Business groups and companies want to see the requirements eased, but that’s a tough political sell in a country with millions out of work.
Longer-term solutions include education reforms to help future generations of engineers remain marketable throughout their careers. A recent study at TU Darmstadt noted that in the past, German engineers on average changed jobs twice in their careers. Current and future graduates can expect to switch jobs seven to nine times, while having to master as many new skills en route. That is why German engineering schools are broadening their curricula to stress such key capabilities as lifelong learning, management and leadership, teamwork, communications and strategic thinking.
To help boost the number of graduates, engineering schools have attacked their horrendous dropout rate. TU Darmstadt, for instance, was losing half its students before graduation. Why? Previously, anyone with good grades who wanted to study engineering was accepted. Most of the unprepared could not keep up and left. So TU Darmstadt instituted a more selective application process and started a mentoring program. Result: 80 percent of enrolling students now graduate. A growing chorus also is calling for more technical education in primary and secondary schools. “Schools must intensify their efforts to spark pupil interest in mathematical-technical courses,” asserts the Chambers’ Heinkaus. Echoing a lament that will resonate with his American peers, engineering spokesman Renkel says too many students know how to use computers and electronic devices but haven’t a clue as to how they work.
Schools have launched other initiatives to entice expatriate scholars home. Among them is the German Academic International Network (GAIN), a clearinghouse for German academics living abroad created by a university consortium called the German Academic Exchange Service. GAIN’s mission is “to inform them of opportunities developing in Germany,” says New York-based project director Katja Simons. Historically, Simons says, 85 percent of Germans who venture abroad eventually move back. The question is, will this new professional flock of expatriates behave in the same way? Even if they do, their return flight may not come quickly enough to blunt the economic effects of an outbound migration that shows no signs of ebbing.
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.