Frankfurt: Robert Weiss grew up in Germany, helping his father fix up cars at home in his free time. It was one reason he chose to move into engineering himself, working in Germany's rail and auto industries before moving into academia.
Today, as the dean of the faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, he's reluctant to confirm that students aren't as interested in technical fields as they once were. Five years ago, there were on average seven applicants for every position in his program, he told DW. Today, that number has dropped to three.
"That's really frightening," he said. "It's a problem for the university. We want to make our programs as full as possible and build out all these engineers. But this also has an impact for the industry and for Germany and for the economy, if you don't have enough engineers working."
Green transformation at risk
German engineering is known worldwide for its quality and innovation. But that brand is under threat. The number of students beginning university degrees in STEM fields — shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and math — fell 6% in just one year, according to a recent study from the nation's federal statistics agency.
Many countries today are struggling with a shortage of skilled labor, but Germany has been hit on two fronts. The country's population is declining, with many engineers and technical specialists now entering retirement. At the same time, Germany needs to pull off a massive digital and green transformation, a task that will require an army of workers skilled in IT, engineering and other advanced technical fields.
In April 2022, the country was short around 320,000 STEM specialists, according to a 2022 report by the German Economic Institute (IW) in Cologne.The latest enrolment figures show the situation isn't improving.
Shortage will hit productivity
"STEM subjects aren't yet receiving the appreciation warranted by their economic and social importance," Germany's Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) wrote in an action plan targeted at increasing interest in STEM.
The pressure to innovate is huge right now, and for that you need these technical specialists, Axel Plünnecke, leader of the cluster "Education, Innovation, Migration" at the IW institute, told DW. The question is whether Germany can get them in sufficient numbers.
"If it can't, then competitiveness is going to take a hit, or companies will have to relocate more heavily to other regions," he said.
Auto industry less attractive
Many factors are weighing on workers' interest in STEM. Population decline is part of the story, as is upheaval in the country's famous automotive branch, where popular employers like BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz have recently struggled in pulling off the transition to electric engines.
"People are unsure if they want to work in that field," said Weiss. "The car maybe isn't the same fascinating thing that it was in the past."
Demographic changes are also playing a role. While the native population is declining, over the last ten years Germany has seen a rise in the share of school students immigrating to the country with their families, said Plünnecke. A language barrier and inadequate support for these students' needs isn't helping the STEM issue.
"That's certainly an educational policy failure," Plünnecke said, noting that children coming from other countries are often equipped to do well in STEM subjects. "Scientific laws are identical worldwide, programming languages are identical worldwide. If you already have the knowledge, it's easy to apply it."
The invisible immigrants
So how to fill the gap?
"Industry will have to look for foreign engineers from other countries," said Weiss.
And to some degree, it already is. According to Plünnecke, lately Germany has had a very high level of immigration in technical subjects. Over the last ten years, the number of Indian passport holders, for example, working in engineering or computer science in Germany has risen from around 3,800 to 25,000, and increase of 558%.
"That's when you can say that something is happening," said Plünnecke. It's more than people realize, he adds, because public discussions around migration in Germany tend to focus on people displaced by conflict.
Global competition for labour
Specialists from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are also becoming more and more common in Germany. But the idea that "per se all the skilled workers in the world" want to come to Germany is "unfortunately an illusion," Germany's labour minister Hubertus Heil said in November.
The government is currently trying to streamline the immigration process for skilled labor. Bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of digitalisation can leave foreign workers waiting months on end for the right to work in the country.
This delay is a nightmare for manufacturers. The lack of necessary labor can mean higher pressure on existing staff, lower productivity, and a risk that they'll lose business to increasingly competitive players like China, which has invested heavily in building out its machine industry. And there's always the risk that homegrown talent looks elsewhere, too.
"That's why Germany needs to be attractive," said Plünnecke. "Because people also leave. Other parts of the world are also nice."