GERMANY: Industry complains of skills shortage

German industry has warned of the need to tackle a shortage of staff in mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and engineering, to stop economic momentum from stalling. Industry federations have put the swelling skills shortfall at 117,000 people in the four fields, abbreviated in German as MINT.

The warning came from the Confederation of German Industry (BDI) and the Confederation of German Employers (BDA).

According to Hans-Peter Klös (pictured), Managing Director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, increased demand for MINT specialists has swept the job market.

"In February alone, the shortage in MINT specialists rose by 21,000 people, which is the highest increase within a single month since 2000," Klös explained.

"Industry's demand for MINT professionals is set to grow even more over the next two years. The number of MINT graduates may have risen, but not enough to meet demand."

Gabriele Sons, Director General of Gesamtmetall, the umbrella association of organisations representing Germany's engineering industry, said that the sector's 3.5 million employees include around a quarter of all MINT academics in Germany.

"So if the already-existing shortage in the MINT area gets even worse, it will hit our branch especially hard," Sons feared.

"This is why ensuring a base for the recruitment of specialists is an indispensable element of any growth-oriented economic and employment policy. If vacancies for engineers and other MINT specialists can't be filled, we will be bargaining away our growth prospects."

Thomas Sattelberger, who is a Deutsche Telekom board member for human resources, chairs 'MINT Zukunft schaffen', an initiative launched by the BDA and the BDI to promote MINT subjects in schools. Sattelberger believes that MINT education must be boosted throughout the entire education system.

"Two natural science and engineering subjects have to be compulsory optional subjects in the natural science and engineering fields right up to the higher secondary school-leaving certificate," Sattelberger said.

'Compulsory optional' (Wahlpflichtfächer) refers to students having to take a subject from a broad area, such as mathematics and natural sciences, but there being options within that area such as maths, chemistry, physics or biology. Sattelberger is calling for compulsory education in two natural science and engineering subjects up to the school-leaving certificate.

"And we can no longer afford to waste what is a valuable talent potential: efforts must be stepped up to encourage girls and young women to study the MINT subjects," he said.

In higher education the Nixdorf Foundation, together with the Stifterverband, Germany's donor organisation for the promotion of science and the humanities, has been supporting institutions coming up with new ideas on boosting MINT graduate statistics.

Nixdorf and the Stifterverband have noted that growth in student numbers is slower in these subjects than it is in many others. One crucial factor they see is that much more could be done to improve study conditions in the subjects.

According to a survey by Hochschul-Informations-System (HIS - a German higher education statistics agency), 28% of MINT students drop out, compared to an overall average dropout rate of around one in five.

If students switching from the MINT area to other subjects are taken into account, the statistics become even more unfavourable, with 40% of beginners not staying on. So just slightly over half of a cohort of beginners actually obtain a MINT degree.

The 40% drop-out rate in MINT subjects compares to around 25% in law, economics and social sciences, and a mere 2% in medicine.

One reason stated for MINT students switching to other subjects or giving up altogether is that many feel that too much is being demanded of them. HIS stated that dropping out is usually due to failing to achieve in MINT courses. Apparently, many students claim that the workload is simply too great.