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Germany fears decline of skilled engineers

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For centuries, Germany has led the world in technological expertise and innovation, from the motorcycle to the refrigerator. During the 19th century, inventors and entrepreneurs like Gottlieb Daimler, Carl Benz, and Carl Wilhelm Siemens developed products that bear their name to this day and still inspire awe as to their quality.

However, Germany has suffered a sharp decline in engineering students. A year ago, the country needed approximately 12,000 engineers. This year, it is estimated by the German Association of Engineers in Berlin that 18,000 are needed. Alarmed that this gap could endanger Germany's engineering creativity, businesses are trying to stem the tide by launching a publicity campaign to make engineering sound like fun from kindergarten through university.

The long-term problem is that young Germans today don't see engineering as a career that pays enough money, when scaled to the cost of living in Germany and the potential for high pay in other professions. While the German government and many businesses are preparing strategies to change that, a more immediate crisis looms. There is a drastic shortfall of engineers today, and the only way to solve that problem immediately is for foreign-born engineers to immigrate into Germany.

Many companies are welcoming the opportunity. Some have felt for years that new thinking and foreign experience are needed to stimulate the profession. While none will go so far as to state that German engineers today are sub-par, many acknowledge that the long-term health of the profession in Germany requires exposure to greater diversity.

Being an engineer no longer has the high status it once enjoyed within Germany. In the mid 1960s, 41 percent of Germans said engineering was a job they had a lot of admiration for. In 2001, only 22 percent said so, according to the Association of Engineers.

A study by the Allensbach Research Institute, Germany's leading polling firm, found in 2003 that being an engineer ranked seventh among young people as a prestigious career behind pastors, doctors, and university professors. Just ten years ago, there were twice as many engineering students at universities than today according to the German Association of Engineers.

Attention was focused on the decline of engineers this spring when Airbus-Germany announced it couldn't find 600 engineers needed to expand their production over the next two years. That Germany couldn't fulfill a moderate order in China that would have created many jobs was a huge shock for the nation. Airbus isn't the only firm hindered by Germany's current lack of engineers. Thirty percent of German employers today report that they are short of engineers.

German politicians are considering amendments to the country's immigration laws as one response. Coming into effect last year, they were to make it easier for skilled foreign workers to enter to Germany. While they have helped a small amount, they come nowhere near to expanding the sort of immigration needed to fill the shortfall of skilled workers.

Germany's first ever immigration law came into effect in 2005. There is widespread acknowledgement that it is far from perfect, and it will require several amendments in the future. German lawmakers do not currently agree on amending the law to allow the naturalization of long-term refugees or illegal immigrants, but there is considerably more consensus when it comes to improving conditions for skilled immigrants.

Under the current regulations, qualified potential immigrants seeking residency permits in Germany often face substantial hurdles. As a consequence, only around 900 skilled workers gained permanent residency in the country in 2005. That is a total of all skilled workers, compared to the 18,000 shortfall in engineering positions alone for this year.

Many western nations, notably Australia, New Zealand and Canada are aggressively competing for skilled workers from around the world. The European Union has recently begun negotiation of developing a points-based system as a model for all Member States. It seems that Germany cannot afford to wait, so it will be a hot-prospect country to watch in the coming months as the debate heats up and moves into concrete legislative changes.


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