Engineering in Germany

Nov. 7, 2008
German engineers have a reputation for having more practical backgrounds than their American counterparts, but does that translate into more-fulfilling careers?

Germany has always been synonymous with engineering. It is well known for its technical universities, internships that are practical and immersive, and perhaps most important, a culture and an economy that rewards engineering skills with both prestige and career growth.

Who, What, Where

Authored by Leif Juergensen
John Kowal
ELAU Inc., a company of Schneider Electric, Schaumburg, Ill.,

Edited by Leland Teschler, [email protected]

Is it better in Germany?
German engineers have many of the same concerns as their U.S. counterparts.

Apprenticeships play a large role in bringing German companies new talent.

While there are no substitutes for aptitude and motivation, the environment in Germany does favor technical education at all levels. The relative lack of engineering technology curricula in the U.S. stands in bleak contrast to the many and varied technical universities in Germany and their close collaboration with industry. In Germany, hands-on internships at companies span the engineering student’s senior year.

Nevertheless, many Germans are unhappy with the country’s primary education system. One criticism concerns the large influx of new grade school teachers in the 1970s. There is a feeling voiced among parents that this generation of teachers has became entrenched, stagnant, and quite bureaucratic and unapproachable. The fear is that the foundation for higher education has deteriorated as a result of their policies. And though many of them are looking at imminent retirement, their departure is a dual-edged sword because it could potentially cause wholesale disruption of the primary school system.

Despite such problems at the primary-school level, German universities have a stellar reputation. They have a long history of close ties to industry. And cooperation between business and education starts young. Companies frequently extend apprenticeships and internships even to high-school students. So young engineering grads and technicians have the opportunity to start careers with an intimate knowledge of their company’s business. Companies start these programs because they are effective at developing employees who are productive the day they’re hired. These relationships also breed stability and loyalty, especially in smaller communities where many engineering firms reside.

Fast facts about German engineering

• Germany exports more mechanical engineering products than any other country, according to the German Engineering Federation.
• Twenty percent of all exported machinery globally came from Germany last year.
• Last year, German machinery and equipment makers added about 50,000 employees. This year they are expected to add another 15,000.
• The number of mechanical engineers in Germany doubled over each of the last two decades.
• The fastest-growing segment for German robotics and automation companies in 2006 was machinevision technology.

But apprenticeships aren’t automatic. Students must seek these jobs out. Nor are apprenticeships mandatory for employment at industrial companies. And there is no guarantee of employment once the apprenticeship has run its course.

Still, it is easy to find high-ranking officials in German manufacturers who began their career with the company as apprentices in high school. And there is an attitude in Germany that employment longevity is a plus for both employer and employee. So it is not uncommon to hear Germans express bewilderment over the practices of large U.S. companies which appear to favor assignments that are only two years long. Most German manufacturers figure it takes closer to five years to both master a position and prepare a replacement before transitioning to the next step on the career ladder.

Becoming a German engineer
The hottest engineering fields in Germany today are in IT, automation, and mechanical engineering geared toward design of machinery. But if ever there was a success story in Germany’s engineering education system, it’s mechatronics. Combining computer science, electrical and mechanical-engineering disciplines, mechatronics programs attract top students with the lure of the best jobs. There are actually two kinds of colleges in Germany that award engineering degrees. The first are called Technical Universities (more emphasis on theory). It takes about five or six years to complete a degree at a Technical university. Graduates typically end up doing R&D, or eventually in corporate management and education.

The second type is called Fachhochschulen (more emphasis on applied technology). They tend to be more practical and deal directly with industrial technologies. Graduates generally finish in four to five years. In addition, there are automation technology institutes which are a little like trade schools. There are quite a number of all three institutions. They can be found in Cologne, Dresden, Magdeburg, Freiberg, Bremen, Stttgart, Rostock, Darmstadt, Bochum, Ilmenau, Merseburg, Halle, Wernigerode, Mittweida, Flensburg, Chemnitz, Karlsruhe, Berlin, Siegen, and Braunschweig.

There is a third route to an engineering degree through practical experience and certification. However, Germany is a country where even a baker must pass a three-year apprenticeship to be eligible for employment. So the process of earning an engineering degree without formal classroom time is also quite rigorous.

As in U.S. engineering schools, there is typically a dropout rate of 20% or more from German technical universities and Fachhochschulen. (In our coauthor’s first semester, 400 students started a math course wherein 70% of them eventually washed out.)

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Germany has 16 different states, each with different policies and regulations that govern school attendance. These regulations tend to be more restrictive than what U.S. students are accustomed to. For example, our coauthor (who passed the math course) moved south and found he couldn’t resume study there in December. He had to wait until the next scholastic year. He ended up having to go out of the region to find a school on his schedule. And as in the U.S., German schools demand that students make high grades in courses for which they request a transfer of credits.

It is also more common in Germany for university classes to be a mix of students having different academic backgrounds. As an example, about 35 of the 70 students in our coauthor’s electrical engineering class were transfers. Another 20 came directly from high school. And 10 had apprenticed and worked as electricians. This was in an EE degree gram that focused on electrical energy generation with automation as a sub or side category.

The situation with engineering in Germany has several parallels with engineering in the U.S. One of them is in demographics. The feeling there is that too few women and minorities pursue engineering careers. So there are efforts underway to make the profession more well known among youngsters in these demographics. And it is easy to find engineering outreach programs targeting German high-school students because Germany is beset with the same aging population as the U.S. The feeling in Germany is that there may not be enough young engineers to continue the country’s traditional leadership in engineering. German leaders view this falloff in engineers as a critical problem because the country is a world leader in machinery exports. All in all, German politicians and businesses alike think a strong engineering base is an economic necessity.

Germans have blamed the impending shortage of engineers on various things at various times. One theory is that it is a result of changing world views. For example, the green movement has been strong in Germany since the 1970s and there is a feeling it may have led children to view engineering as a profession which creates things that hurt the environment. In addition, there is a perception in Germany that the traditional prestige of engineering has eroded somewhat, perhaps because the Germany manufacturing economy turned in a lackluster performance in the 1980s and 1990s. This, in turn, has led a significant number of German engineers to become ex-pats.

Another parallel with the U.S. is that German students with strong analytical skills have been attracted to degrees in finance and business. At least until recently, these degrees have been viewed as fast tracks to corporate success.

One other trend that worries Germans is the change in economic background of the average engineering student. Twenty years ago, roughly a third of engineering students came from affluent, educated households. Another 25% were from average income families, and 15-20% came from households considered poor. Today, at least half of German students are affluent and the poor are largely missing from universities. The thinking is that children from households at the poverty level are under pressure to augment the family income, so they elect to work rather than pursue higher education.

Most Americans would not view the tuition at German universities as exorbitant. Nominal tuition runs perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 annually. Over the course of four to six years of study, the combined cost of living away from home, books, clothes, etc., can be in the 55,000 to 60,000 range. There are government loans and scholarships available for those who demonstrate financial need. And as in the U.S., a few individuals game the system: The government does ask to be paid back once you are gainfully employed. Some people quit working in response.

Some German engineers complain, like doctors in the U.S., that they never recoup the income lost while spending long years in school. Moreover, salary compression is a fact of life. Engineers in Germany start at salaries of 40,000 to 50,000. This is considered high, but engineers fall behind in overall earnings compared to other professions as they progress within their career.

Top degrees
Still, a “Dipl.-Ing.” (short for Diplom-Ingenieur) from either a university or Fachhochschule is a respected degree. The Dipl.-Ing. in Germany is analogous to an engineering doctorate in the U.S. and still opens a lot of doors.

Like U.S. institutions, German universities and economic development organizations have recruited qualified candidates from outside Germany. Today it is not uncommon to find these programs populated by students from the U.S., India, and other places, all of whom aspire to have the degree, which roughly translates to “diplomaed engineer,” on their business cards.

Degrees granted by both kinds of institutions require a thesis. Thesis work is considered especially difficult, typically driven by research in a professor’s for-profit project. So degree candidates fuel the numerous cooperative ventures between industry and universities. Thus thesis topics are not mere academic exercises. They are serious efforts directed toward commercial R&D and developing new technologies.

To get an idea of where a lot of German engineering effort goes, consider the recently completed Interpack Show, widely regarded as the premier trade show for packaging machinery. There appeared to be no shortage of innovative, well-engineered and beautifully fabricated German equipment, with many advances in automation and robotics since the last show two years ago. From Interpack, it would be easy to think that German engineers are still at the top of their game. But they are not resting on their laurels. In packaging machinery, at least, the Italians are coming on strong.

It is likely that a German engineer has spent time apprenticing on a factory floor before moving to design work.

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