When high school junior Daria Schirmer conducted scientific experiments with 8-year-olds as part of a school project this year – building a periscope or a compass with a magnet – she became not only an inventor of sorts but also part of the solution to what looms as one of Germany's greatest challenges: how to keep its sterling reputation as the world's leader in engineering.
For centuries, Germany led the world in technological prowess, from the motorcycle to the refrigerator. In the 19th century, inventors and entrepreneurs like Gottlieb Daimler, Carl Benz, and Carl Wilhelm Siemens developed products for brands still respected today. But over the past few years, young Germans have dramatically turned away from engineering – and now, the country needs 18,000 engineers – a third more than last year, according to the German Association of Engineers in Berlin. 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 image of engineers has never been so bad," says Markus Roeser of Do Things, a coalition of 80 businesses, universities, and research institutes created five months ago to fill the engineering gap.
The group sponsors school projects, gives awards to youths making special scientific discoveries, awards scholarships, and helps engineering students find internships and young researchers commercialize their inventions.
"If we don't succeed in making young people enthusiastic about technical jobs again, we're running the risk of losing our place as the world's leading exporter," of manufactured goods and technologies, says Mr. Roeser.
"The lack of engineers is Germany's No. 1 hindrance to innovation," says Roeser. "At stake is to keep Germany's creative potential."
"Little Einstein Experiments," the pilot project that had pupils like Daria visit grade schools to do experiments every week, is the crux of this publicity campaign. Sponsored by the German state of Hessen's entrepreneurs association, it is meant to awaken scientific thirst early on.
"Children are naturally curious about learning. It's important to encourage their enthusiasm so that the fun doing experiments lasts," says Monika Zieleniewicz, Daria's physics teacher at the Albert Einstein High School in suburban Frankfurt who supervised the program. "That's how you help develop children's motivation for those fields."
"The focus has to be on the schools," says Benjamin Burde of the Berlin-based Mathematics and Science Excellence Centers in Schools, which supports mathematics, computers, science, and technology education. He notes that in Germany, those disciplines have almost disappeared from the school curriculum.
How engineering lost its cachet
Being an engineer no longer has the high status it once enjoyed.
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.
Part of Germany's engineering decline started in the 1970s as the environmental movement grew and people started questioning the impacts of ever-faster energy-hungry technologies on society and the environment.
By making people skeptical about technological progress, it gradually hurt the prestige of engineering jobs, says Joerg Feuchhofen, head of the Association of Entrepreneurs in Hessen, which represents 100,000 entrepreneurs in the state of Hessen. "The Germans often looked at it as something that endangered the environment," says Mr. Feuchthofen. "That's a reason why the fields covering ... technology have lost ground in the education system."
Ten years ago, there were twice as many engineering students at universities than today according to the German Association of Engineers.
The problem isn't new. But attention was focused on the dearth of engineers this spring when Airbus-Germany announced it couldn't find 600 engineers needed as they gear up to expand their production over the next two years.
"That Germany can't fulfill a major order in China that would have created many jobs was a big shock for the nation," says Roeser.
Indeed, Airbus isn't the only firm hindered by Germany's current lack of engineers. Thirty percent of German employers say they are short engineers, according to a survey by the German Association of Engineers.
"At least four or five years ago, people came to interviews," says Andrea Gossel of the Schunk Group, an international car-part manufacturer headquartered in the small village of Heuchelheim. "Today they don't ever bother to show up."