A quick comparison of the UK and German economies present jobless British engineers with one conclusion: to Germany! We ask whether it's worth crossing the Channel to find work.
Figures for October 2010 show UK graduate unemployment at a 17-year high, with an average figure of 9 per cent. Engineering and IT posted the worst figures: in IT the jobless rate is 16 per cent; in electrical and electronic engineering, according to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, it is 13 per cent.
The outlook in Germany is distinctly rosier. The economy grew by 3.6 per cent last year and people are buying German exports again. Yet at the same time, Germany, the epitome of an engineering-driven society, is suffering a huge shortage of engineers.
The question, then, is simple: why don't UK graduates venture across the Channel to 'the land of ideas' and try their luck there?
According to Carol Becker of German engineering association, VDI, there were 72,000 engineering job vacancies in January 2011. This figure could rise to 400,000 by 2014, according to one think-tank, with the key shortage areas expected to be electrical and mechanical engineering.
Germany has long suffered from an ageing population, with birth rates in some parts below one child per woman, and its engineers have one of the oldest age profiles in the world. Many are set to retire in a few years. For young Germans, the attractions of going into engineering are not what they were, though the profession still has a much higher status than in the UK.
Yet, of the tens of thousands of international, non-EU students studying at Germany's superb technical universities – Pakistanis, Russians, Chinese – few are allowed to stay in the country to pursue a career after they graduate.
'It is absolutely crazy,' says Dr Oliver Koppel, an expert at the employment think tank IW, based in Cologne. 'They study in Germany virtually for nothing – the government pays for their education – and then they are not given visas to be allowed to stay.' Instead they return to their home countries or emigrate.
Koppel says: 'There is no political will to give them long-term visas, because the general public says 'we already have three million unemployed, why can't jobs go to them?'. But these are skilled jobs that cannot be filled otherwise and it is costing the economy billions.'
Who needs engineers?
Germany has culturally had far more problems with the idea of non-European immigration than the UK or immigrant societies such as the US or Canada.
Koppel says: 'We need engineers. In the overall economy, there is 7.8 per cent unemployment. But in the engineering sector we have only 23,000 unemployed out of a total of 1.2 million working engineers. At less than 2 per cent, that is classed as full employment.'
German engineering has a proud history and an excellent reputation. There is much more to it than Siemens, Porsche and VW: the mittelstand – small to medium-sized enterprises that form the backbone of the German engineering industry – have historically specialised in the 'unsexy' end of the market: machine tools rather than iPods.
They have, though, turned it into an artform, through incremental innovation and attention to detail, providing exactly the kind of customer-specific quality equipment that China and India need to build their own economies. German manufacturing has remained sustainable and competitive to a greater extent than in any other Western economy. The country's exports rose 20 per cent in 2010.
So how attractive a destination is it for British engineers who can freely stay and work there under EU rules on Europe-wide free mobility? Some things are promising: better schools, calmer pace of life, higher standards of living, superior occupational status and cutting-edge technology development. There are potential obstacles though: the language, different cultural traditions, and a lack of employment links between Germany and Britain unlike, say, Britain and the Commonwealth.
Three British engineers currently working in Germany share their experiences.
Mark, 35, was born in South Africa to British parents. He moved to Europe and lived in Norway in the mid 1990s. When he arrived in Germany, he had to do an extra year at college before he could be accepted at a local university, then he applied to higher education. American universities were too expensive and the UK did not appeal to him, because the 'standards of mechanical engineering were lower' Mark chose Berlin's Technical University for its 'high quality-to-cost ratio'.
He paid for his studies by working weekends. In 2000, he graduated with the desirable Diplom Ingenieur title, which is 'slightly more advanced than a British Master's degree'. It used to be the 'gold standard' if you were looking for a job, though Germany is now moving towards shorter, UK-style degrees. There were so many ageing students at German universities it became a joke, Mark adds.
He doesn't know anyone working in Germany with a foreign degree. 'Socially I imagine living in Britain is more enjoyable if you live an international lifestyle,' he says. 'The British are more internationally minded. On the other hand, there is certainly more free space and probably more outdoor activities in Germany and better weather. If you live in Munich, you could work in the morning and ski in the afternoon.
'The engineering field is very different. I came to Germany because its mechanical engineers are among the world's best. This is not true in the IT field; probably because almost all programming languages have English as a mother tongue.'
Mark adds he would consider a move to China where 'German skills are very highly valued. The engineering skills I have learnt I certainly wouldn't have to hide'.
Chris was 'dragged to Germany' in the early 1980s by his German girlfriend (now wife) and lives and works in the Stuttgart area, in IT. His son studied mechanical engineering in Stuttgart as his parents couldn't dream of sending their son to a British university: 'It's too expensive.' He applied to Rolls-Royce for his year abroad but opted for a Munich firm instead.
In Germany, some lander (provinces) charge €500 a term or €1,000 a year; in others higher education is free. With extensive experience in Germany, Chris sees engineers come and go. He says: 'Nearly all British contract working engineers in Germany – who stay from a few months to a few years – have gone home.'
But he does not see many French engineers working in Germany, despite Stuttgart's proximity to the border, and in spite of 'all the talk of European integration'.
At Stuttgart University, where Chris now works, 'many Russians and Chinese are studying'. He enjoys the higher quality of life and misses less about the UK since the arrival of the Internet and satellite TV. He also admires the efficiency: 'things just work in Germany'.
Chris might retire to the UK, but probably not. 'There is not much that German engineers admire about the British: some Internet protocols that the British invented, that is all.
'British engineers are respected when they come over, but Germans tend to think UK engineering is worse than it is, not realising when it has turned a corner, for instance Jaguar.'
Phillip moved to Hamburg in the 1980s. In the UK he was working for GEC at Borehamwood, on mainframe computers.
Coming to Germany was a shock: 'In England, if you left an oscilloscope lying around for 15 minutes it would be nicked. German labs were so clean and well equipped.'
But he is not completely uncritical of the Germans. He says companies are 'afraid to take the plunge' and 'take risks', preferring to shadow US products but at better quality. The promotion ladder can be quite strict and inflexible; salaries are negotiated not with one's boss – except at the highest level – but through the union.
'You can get into a rut, progressing very slowly,' he says. But he is appalled by the shabbiness and poverty in some areas when he returns to the UK. And he remembers the last time he drove a Rover as a hire car. It was a late model, after BMW had taken over. 'It was awful. Everything was falling off, the door catches wouldn't fit. Lots of little things. The British don't know how to complain; they just accept bad quality.'
Getting to Germany
For anyone interested in a career in Germany, several universities are now offering Bachelors courses in engineering – in English (some German is required). They include Bremen, Hamburg, Duisburg and Oldenburg. They charge a few hundred euros a term. Qualified engineers could apply directly to company websites like Bosch or Siemens, which have UK graduate programmes.
International Online Recruitment websites such as Xpatjobs have thousands of jobs in Germany for German speakers and hundreds for English speakers. No one knows for sure how many UK engineers are in Germany; the IET local branch has about 400 members, down on previous years thanks to the recession of 2008-09.
For those currently at a UK university, studying in Europe for a few months under the EU's Erasmus programme might be worthwhile. Take-up among engineers is traditionally very low. 'It was an eye opener,' says Andy Sinharay, in his 30s, who did his Erasmus placement at a French engineering school and then went to work for British Aerospace and EADS in Munich, where he is now doing a PhD.
'It opened my eyes to other ways of doing things, and inspired me to work abroad.'
Another possibility is to do an engineering and modern languages joint honours degree: Sheffield University offers one course, which graduates a handful each year. One insider who taught courses there says that so few Brits master foreign languages it can be a real advantage. 'One candidate who bothered to learn Dutch was running an oil rig while he was still an undergraduate.'
British engineers are valued for their networking skills, teamwork, pragmatism and flexibility, and their ability to bring groups of disparate people together. 'There is an appealing 'no blame' culture in British society that allows you to make mistakes, while Germans can be less forgiving,' says Sinharay.
One big weakness tends to be mathematical training. 'The best – those who studied at the Russell group universities – are very good, but there is a long tail,' says one lecturer with 40 years experience. 'It used to be said that if you couldn't do maths but were practical, do engineering.'
This brings us to the question of language. Some companies in Germany operate in English – EADS, for instance – and software engineering is more generally in English. 'It's not necessary for software developers to learn German' says Simon Gould of Jet Consulting, a recruitment agency. But Ken Smith, who works for Jenoptik, a laser electronics group, says it took him a long time to get a job in the 1990s when he spoke little German. 'There was a wave of racism just after East German reunification: people stared at you when you spoke a foreign language, it didn't matter if it was English.'
Susanne Krebs, of the German VDMA association of goods manufacturers, emphasised that, in as much that Germany does have a foreign-engineers policy, it is engineers from Asia who could benefit most from a short period of retraining in Germany, and then go on to work usefully in Asia for a subsidiary where their cultural and language skills would be invaluable. 'Asia is the big market for German exporters' she says.
Germany's foreign-engineer policy is not there to plug the domestic skills gap however. According to Dr Koppel of the IW institute, there are efforts in place to retain older engineers for longer and to employ more women in the profession – as yet, with limited success. Germany and Britain are both at the bottom of the table when it comes to attracting women into engineering.
The picture may not be without its challenges, for Germany is a competitive place, but if Brits do brave the Channel, and come back, they will have acquired a very useful skill set from the world's premier engineering economy.