Engineers Made in Germany – Technology from Germany

Germany is a country usually associated with poets, thinkers and composers – and with the sort of top-notch high-tech products manufactured there. Such products are in demand the world over and German technology has even been used to clean the stone sculpture featuring the heads of former US presidents at Mount Rushmore. Germany owes much of its technological success to its engineers – and to their ability to make practical use of their extensive know-how. To make sure that it remains a leader in technology and the world’s export champion, Germany needs a sufficient supply of fresh young engineers – from other countries as well.

Implementing know-how: How to successfully train engineers Enlarge image Implementing know-how: How to successfully train engineers (© Heddergott / TU Munich) Leonardo da Vinci wasprobably the first engineer in history. The ingenious artist and inventor described himself as an “ingegnier”, which at that time meant someone in charge of military equipment. Even though the origins of the engineering profession can be traced back to Italy and France, Germany has shaped its image and profile more than any other country. In 1899, the King of Prussia issued a “supreme decree” creating the academic titles of “Diplom-Ingenieur” (graduate engineer) and “Doktor-Ingenieur” (doctor of engineering). The 111th anniversary of the introduction of these titles is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the success of this “brand” and to look back on the successful careers of Carl Benz, Robert Bosch and many other engineers without whom the 20th century would not have been the age of progress that it was.

Even today, engineersare largely responsible for the innovation stream that helps make German products and services successful on the world market. Recent examples are the inventions nominated for the 2010 German Future Prize, which is awarded every year by the Federal President: the laser-based optical sorter for plastic granules developed by the Karlsruhe company Unisensor and the robotic tentacle arm developed by the firm Festo in Esslingen, which looks like an elephant’s trunk and can even move raw eggs.

Broad-Based Education

The success is no accident. German universities are top of the league in terms of the education they offer, though international rankings often put the US and UK’s well-known prestigious universities at the top of the list. The picture is quite clear as far as engineers are concerned: in a Boston Consulting Group study, engineering education in Germany scores a 1.7 on a school grading scale of one to six, putting it in first place. A broad-based theoretical knowledge of mathematics combined with the know-how needed to practically apply such knowledge is the recipe for success.
Cargo ships learn to sail: Technology from Hamburg helps reduce fuel consumption Enlarge image Cargo ships learn to sail: Technology from Hamburg helps reduce fuel consumption (© SkySails) Engineering programmes at German universities differ from those in other countries in that they have a strong practical and industrial orientation,” explains Sabina Jeschke, Professor of Information Management in Mechanical Engineering at RWTH Aachen University. In addition, depending on their personal preferences, students can choose between studies of a more theoretical nature at a university or a practice-oriented programme at a university of applied sciences, which brings them into contact with industry early on. Quite a few young people also opt for vocational training in industry before going on to university.

Such a broad-based education– equipping students with the ability to tackle a problem from both a theoretical and practical angle and to look beyond their own horizons – appears to be one of the secrets of the German system’s success.

No wonder, then, that engineering graduates of German universities are in demand worldwide. But focusing German engineers’ training exclusively on high-tech products can occasionally mean that simpler solutions – which might be less expensive and of greater practical value – are overlooked. The Germans have a saying for this: Why do things the easy way when there’s a complicated one?

But German engineers have learned a few lessonsalong the way. Today, they pay more attention to customers’ real needs, and this has changed the professional profile required of engineering graduates. There is a growing demand for “soft skills” – the ability to deal with people, to communicate, to offer convincing arguments, and all of this in perfect English – especially if engineers are in leadership positions with frequent customer contact.

InternationalExperience Counts

Internationality and intercultural skills are among the most sought after personal qualities in engineers looking for jobs with international companies,” says recruitment consultant Heiko Mell who regularly offers career tips in the Association of German Engineers’ trade journal “VDI-Nachrichten”. A spell studying abroad is all but compulsory, and opportunities for foreign students and graduates in the German job market are steadily improving.

Polishing presidents: High-performance cleaning equipment from Germany used to spruce up the US Mount Rushmore National Memorial Enlarge image Polishing presidents: High-performance cleaning equipment from Germany used to spruce up the US Mount Rushmore National Memorial (© Kärcher) However, the Association for Electrical, Electronic and Information Technologies(VDE) cautions against overrating such soft skills. They should not be fostered at the expense of what is the essential requirement in this profession: a profound knowledge of engineering. This is something that is being taught in an increasing number of specialized programmes. We do still have classical subjects like electrical and mechanical engineering, but technology is advancing so rapidly that universities’ engineering departments need to diversify so as to include new subjects like mechatronics and renewable energy. Particularly successful are the programmes in “Wirtschaftsingenieurwesen” (Business Administration and Engineering), which open up all sorts of opportunities to graduates and offer them good prospects of promotion. Such programmes combine engineering know-how with business and management skills, thus filling a gap in an area where there are frequent misunderstandings in the working world.

The sort of all-round engineer still encountered in the days of automobile pioneer Carl Benz and Robert Bosch, founder of the eponymous electrical engineering company, no longer exists. No one individual can have a command of the whole range of technological know-how, which is why industry is always on the lookout for young new engineers.

Despite the global economic slowdowncaused by the banking crisis, there is practically full employment in the engineering sector: in 2009, only 2.4 per cent of engineers were out of work. That’s why Germany needs a constant supply of fresh young engineers. But the approximately 75,000 school-leavers that start studying engineering every year are unable to fill the looming gap.

Garage boffins welcome: Students at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology build their own racing car Enlarge image Garage boffins welcome: Students at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology build their own racing car (© KA-RaceIng e.V.) Three measures are designed to help increase the number of engineering students.The first is to encourage more young women to study subjects like mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and engineering. The second is to recruit more students and skilled workers from abroad. Engineers like these from other cultures are particularly valuable because they help to open up new markets and consolidate Germany’s position as world export champion. The third is to make engineering programmes more studiable and reduce the high dropout rates.

Copyright: Bernd Müller, DAAD Letter 3/2010