Child’s play to nurture young engineers
By Daniel Schäfer in Ludwigshafen
Published: August 18 2010 22:55 | Last updated: August 18 2010 23:05
|Experimental work: children in Ludwigshafen, Germany gain enthusiasm for science|
With his big blue safety goggles and oversized apron, little Lukas resembles a miniature chemistry professor as he blows air with a drinking straw into a transparent plastic bucket filled with water. “I am producing bubbly bubbles that are filled with air,” the five-year-old explains excitedly.
This water experiment at a day care centre in Ludwigshafen, south-west Germany, has shown Lukas that the environment is full of air. But the implications are far wider. Experiments such as these form part of corporate Germany’s increasingly desperate effort to tackle its most pressing long-term problem: the drastic skills shortage.
In spite of an unemployment rate that still stands at 7.6 per cent, employers in Europe’s largest economy are faced with a shortage of mathematicians, engineers, electricians and other skilled professionals that threatens to undermine the country’s position as one of the strongest industrial economies in the world.
German companies were short of more than 60,000 skilled workers with technical and scientific qualifications in 2009, according to data from DIW, an economic research institute. With the country’s population rapidly ageing and the educational system failing to spark interest in sciences, Germany’s skills shortage is expected to increase dramatically; Prognos, a research institute, recently forecast that by 2030, there will be a shortfall of 5.2m professionals.
“We will have to do much more for education and research, otherwise we will face a very dark future,” says Franz Fehrenbach, chief executive of Bosch, the German car parts and industrial conglomerate.
The scale of the problem is such that many German companies have desperately held on to their skilled workforce in spite of last year’s economic decline, the steepest since the second world war.
So, alongside embarking on a poaching battle over the existing professionals and trying to attract more immigrants – a hotly debated topic in Germany – a growing number of senior managers has been starting initiatives to address a problem that in 2009 cost the German economy about €15bn ($19bn, £12.3bn).
Five years ago, Mr Fehrenbach and eight other senior managers founded Wissensfabrik – “Knowledge factory” – which promotes science and economics among schoolchildren and fosters children’s language skills. Since then, the organisation has launched an array of projects to improve an education system that seems increasingly unable to cater for the needs of engineering, electronics and vehicle makers, the backbone of Germany’s export-driven economy.
In Germany, more than 30 per cent of students in technical sciences drop out of university early. According to estimates by VDMA, the German engineering association, 65,000 engineering freshmen started university in 2009 but only 31,000 finished their final exams – far less than were needed by industry.
Gerhard Rübling, head of personnel and executive board member at Trumpf, a family-held laser machinery maker and a founding member of Wissensfabrik, says the situation is dramatic. “The requirements for engineering studies are too tough and the curricula do not always suit the needs of the industry. We need better tutorials and teaching plans at universities and we have to ask ourselves if technical subjects gain enough attention at school.”
While many German companies work with universities to ensure that students are taught the skills that will help in their professional lives, the Wissensfabrik is focusing on children’s formative school and even preschool years.
“We want to support and at the same time challenge the existing educational system,” says Eva Müller, Wissensfabrik’s chief executive.
Wissensfabrik finds companies that are willing to build and finance partnerships with schools, education facilities and childcare centres. It then provides those partners with learning materials and teacher training while also monitoring and supporting the projects.
The education system is only part of the problem. Europe’s export champion has for years blatantly ignored a large pool of existing talent and skill resources.
“We definitely have a lot of catching up to do with women, older people and the migrants who already live in Germany,” says Tanja Nackmayr, deputy director for education at BDA, the German employers’ association.
Trading in cuddly toys
At first, the project appears mean. For at Trumpf, primary schoolchildren must trade their cuddly toys before embarking on a “trainee week” at the laser machinery maker. But any hardship is soon forgotten.
First they design a product, such as a biscuit tin. Then, a laser machine punches the metal needed to build the product, which the children present to their teachers and later sell at school or in flea markets. With that money, they can buy back their toys and have some cash left over. So by the end of the week they have learnt how goods are made and about the consumer economy.
Progress has already been made with the over-55 age group. In the past 10 years, the employment rate of people aged 55 to 64 has shot up from 37.4 per cent to 56.2 per cent.
The number of female employees in industrial jobs is also on the rise, reflecting an increase in the number of university-educated women.
But Europe’s engineering heartland has so far failed to bring migrants into technical or business jobs. The number of migrants who fail to finish school is more than twice the average.
The skills shortage is so worrying that Wissensfabrik has evolved into a corporate mass movement, enlisting more than 70 companies, including some of Germany’s largest industrial groups, such as Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and Continental.
Wissensfabrik has worked with 120,000 children and adults at more than 1,600 universities, advanced education facilities, schools and childcare centres.
“A successful recruitment strategy has to bank on long-term projects across the whole educational chain – from the early upbringing in kindergarten and the family to a lifelong, on-the-job training,” says Henning Kagermann, one of the founders of German software group SAP and president of Acatech, an academy that promotes technical studies and collaborates with Wissensfabrik.
Projects via the “knowledge factory” range from language training for small children – dubbed “narrative workshops”, as childcare workers learn how to teach children to tell stories – and one-week programmes, funded by companies, in which primary school pupils are taught natural sciences and technical subjects.
Once the projects are up and running, some companies withdraw. At Lukas’s day care centre, sponsor BASF, the chemical group, kick-started the project in 2006 but last year handed the financial responsibility over to the centre’s provider – in this case the Catholic Church.
“BASF wants to be a company that triggers and establishes societal changes, which means that once the projects are up and running, it can gradually withdraw,” says Daniela Kalweit, head of its educational programmes.
The company spends up to €5m each year on similar projects.
At the day care facility in Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim, the small borough where former German chancellor Helmut Kohl lives, change is palpable. With the help of various experiments – part of a project dubbed “Vom Kleinsein zum Einstein” (from small child to Einstein) – the 75 children have developed considerable enthusiasm for sciences while learning new words, such as those for various tools or apparatus.
Lukas looks keen to learn more about the “bubbly bubbles”. But it is too early to tell the outcome of BASF’s support for his drinking straw and bucket of water experiment. Asked about his future career, Lukas is resolute: “I want to become a policeman”, comes the reply.