PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
Re-engineering in Germany
Engineering education in the Deutschland has broken down,becoming too rigid and out of step with global trends—but schools are working hard to get back in the fast lane.

By Thomas K. Grose

German engineering. They are two words that have long been synonymous with superb quality and great skill. Germany's widely acclaimed engineering successes include high-performance cars like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, the world's first express highways (the autobahns), and the Merck Group's liquid crystal, which is used in flat-screen TVs. "The reputation of German engineering is well deserved. It combines engineering with craftsmanship. German engineers are solid and thorough," explains Safwat M.A. Moustafa, a mechanical engineering professor at California Polytechnic State University.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on Germany's way to establishing its engineering bona fides. Its engineering higher-education system became too rigid and out of step with global trends. Well-trained as they are, German engineers are seen as too inflexible for the fast-changing, increasingly important high-tech industries. As a result, university-level engineering enrollments in Germany plummeted 35 percent between 1991 and 1996.

Enrollment in undergraduate programs dropped about 6 percent in the U.S. over the same period.

To turn things around, nearly 200 German schools are now in the process of replicating the American model of offering bachelor of science and master's degrees in engineering. And this could ultimately spell the end of the German engineering degree, the Dipl.-Ing., which has long been recognized within Germany as the hallmark of highly trained professionals.

 The trouble is, outside of Germany, the Dipl.-Ing. is not well understood and doesn't open many doors.

"The German diploma is one of high standard, and it's held in high esteem. But it needs to become compatible with and fit into an increasingly international talent pool," explains Christoph F. Buechtemann, director of the Center for Research on Innovation and Society (CRIS), a German-American think tank. "Non-Germans have trouble assessing it, understanding it." And that is a problem in a global economy where German engineers must compete against foreigners who mostly have degrees based on the American model and are therefore more widely understood. It's also a problem for German schools, which find it increasingly difficult to entice foreign engineering students into their programs. "The numbers [of foreign students] enrolling in engineering programs in Germany are declining, and they're going to the U.S. and England," Buechtemann says.

A Matter of Degrees

Two types of universities teach engineering in Germany. Fachhochschulen, or universities of applied sciences, award a Dipl.-Ing., but offer no doctoral programs and teach specific applications of engineering.

Earning a degree at a fachhochschulen takes between four and a half and five and a half years. Universitaeten, or research universities, also award a Dipl.-Ing. as well as doctorates, and teach a more theoretical approach to engineering. Earning a degree from an universitaeten takes six to seven years.

Students at both types of schools spend two terms—six months—working as interns within their chosen industry. "The Dipl.-Ing. is below a master's, but more than a B.S.," Moustafa says, which can be confusing to American personnel managers. Moreover, German Dipl.-Ing.-holders don't become "professional" or "chartered" engineers as a means to underscore their qualifications. "We do not need to do that because there are no great differences in the quality of education between all the universities in Germany," says Rolf Herz, an engineering department head at the University of Applied Sciences at Munich. "That's not so in America, making necessary a government exam that checks if the engineer has learned enough at university."

Also, right from the start of their university days, German engineering students are vocationally oriented—they've chosen their field of practice before taking their first class. "They develop a strong sense of identity, which makes them adverse to change. And that's a problem in the developing high-tech industries," Buechtemann maintains.

Most schools are keeping the Dipl.-Ing., but are offering B.S and master's degrees as options. "Our Dipl.-Ing. will stay, at least for a while, until the market has decided what it wants to accept. The content stays basically the same, but will be arranged a little differently," Herz says. Internships will be retained for the B.S. program (see sidebar p.30).

In addition, much more emphasis will be placed on teaching in English. "A lot of the studies will be entirely in English" because that's the language of all global professions, says Karl-Heinz Simsheuser, managing director of the Association of German Engineers, which has offered schools guidelines on setting up B.S. and master's programs. Moreover, it's believed that teaching in English will make it easier to woo international students. "Who wants to go through that trouble to learn German before he or she can study in Germany?" asks Herz.

Already, the changes may have helped arrest the spiraling decline in domestic enrollments. Engineering enrollments were up 2.5 percent in each of the past two years. Small steps, to be sure, but certainly going in the right direction. If enrollments continue to pick up, and foreign students begin to pour in, then the schools will have found the changes worthwhile. For students, a B.S.-based system will require more adaptability and the realization that their education may be a lifelong venture, which is another concept that's been imported from the U.S. Currently, after spending so many years training for a specific niche within the engineering profession, the average German graduate is already in his or her late 20s, so not too many want, or are able, to go off in new directions.

And that has made switching fields within the German labor pool difficult. In the early to mid-'90s, many engineers—particularly civil engineers—found themselves unemployed in a glutted market. Even during that period of high unemployment, engineering jobs were available in fast-growing sectors like telecommunications, computers, and electronics—but few engineers could make the transition, so entrenched were they in their previous vocations. "This is something that companies in Germany have long complained about. The underlying argument is that 30-year-olds are less flexible, have more of a 'specialist' attitude, and often have motivational barriers to shifting, or being shifted, toward new tasks and technology areas," Buechtemann says.

It's hoped that graduates who receive the "thinner," but more pliable, B.S. degrees will enter the job market for a few years before deciding—if ever—to obtain a master's and specialize, thus following the market's needs. "This should provide for more mobility," Buechtemann says. The Association of German Engineers' Simsheuser agrees. "No one knows if you really need all this study before entering the workplace. You can go for a master's later, if you really need it," he says.

Crossing Borders

The changes underway in German engineering education are being applauded and pushed by industry, particularly large multinationals like Siemens and DaimlerChrysler. "Greater flexibility is something we would prefer," says Georg Haux, a Siemens spokesman. "It would be better for [newly graduated] engineers to spend a few years at a company before going back for a master's. That's something of interest to us." And, notes Buechtemann: "International compatibility of degree levels—and remuneration levels tied to them—is certainly a concern of multinational companies. It makes fishing in the 'global talent pool' easier."

That's increasingly important to multinationals that rely on multicultural engineering teams at home and abroad. As a Center for Research on Innovation and Society report from last year indicates, the internationalization of research and development requires engineers who can communicate and work with "peers who were trained and socialized in different national and cultural environments." Eliminating as many training differences as possible helps make that chore easier.

Perhaps more worrisome to German multinationals is the 20-year trend that has seen German engineering remaining strong in traditional areas—transportation, chemicals, machine tools—while "falling behind in generating new industrial competencies and competitive strength in certain high-tech sectors," the CRIS report says. And the "inherent 'conservatism' of its education system" is partly to blame. Indeed, 90 percent of German graduates end up working in production and manufacturing, not in research and development, compared with about 80 percent in the United States. The flexibility of the B.S. degree, with engineers going for a specialized master's degree later in their careers, may help solve that problem. "Certainly it would strengthen companies' influence on education decisions," Buechtemann says. By employing engineers who wait to attend company-sponsored master's programs, companies can use incentives to obtain some control over which areas their people opt to specialize. "In exchange for the loss of specialization induced by the creation of B.S. degrees, companies would gain more influence on the specialization patterns of graduate programs and gear them closer to their expected needs," Buechtemann explains.

For many small- to medium-sized German companies, efforts to channel more students into bachelor's and master's degree programs will matter very little. Most of these companies are perfectly happy with the training their Dipl.-Ing. engineers receive, and they hire 65 percent of all German engineering students. "But it is the bigger companies that push these demands and they influence the market," Simsheuser says.

Yet there is no resentment that the "thinner" B.S. degree may very well usurp the sturdy Dipl.-Ing. As the need to move more engineers into developing industries grows stronger, it's expected that even smaller companies will come to appreciate an engineering workforce that is more mobile and not so anchored to one industry. And as more engineers embrace the concept of lifelong education, where they can take a mid-career break for a master's or an M.B.A., there is less fear that Germany's vaunted engineering profession is being "dumbed down." Says Buechtemann: "This is the best template for Germany. And there is a very positive attitude in Germany about this."

How It Might Work

German universities can structure their Bachelor of Science degree programs however they see fit. But here is how a typical program would look as recommended by the Association of German Engineers:

The first year would include the basics of mathematics and natural science, and the basics of applied sciences and engineering technology. A number of "preparation courses" would also be available as electives. The math courses could include differential and integral calculus, algebraic equations, matrix calculus and determinants, differential equations, and simple numerical mathematics. Computer science would include courses in basic knowledge of programming, software engineering, and object orientation. Natural science classes would include physics, chemistry, biology, materials and ecology. The fundamentals of technology courses would include mechanics, thermodynamics, electrical engineering, technical aggregates and machinery, and control engineering.

Over the next two or three years, students would embark on "Engineering Study." Courses would include industrial engineering, organization of human resources, and the basic elements of law. Each student would have an industrial internship during this period. The study would conclude with a final thesis written over a three-month period, coupled with a final examination.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer in London.