Electrical engineer: A job with an image problem

The gap between supply and demand for engineers is growing at an alarming rate. Meanwhile the study of electrical engineering is becoming less and less popular among young talent. The reasons for this are surprising.

The downward trend continues: With 3.5 percent of all students, electrical engineering is currently reaching a new low. TheAssociation for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies (VDE) expects that 7,500 students in the field will graduate this year. In contrast, 13,500 electrical engineers are retiring and need to be replaced. 

Although Germany is largely closing the gap with skilled workers from abroad at present, this is not a solution for the future. On the one hand, demographic change and highly topical tasks such as renewable energies, mobility, digitization and Industry 4.0 are exacerbating the shortage. On the other, there is an increasing need for electrical engineering specialists in other countries.

Electrical engineer – the misjudged profession

Only young talent can fix this. But they are ignoring electrical engineering. According to a current VDE study, the young generation mostly sees electrical engineers bent over laying cables or installing Christmas lights. 

Most of them can’t imagine studying electrical engineering. When one thinks about the word “electrical”, the mind’s eye reconstructs an unattractive job profile which is characterized by completing any work orders or checking and repairing electrical devices. On the other hand, there is a desire to develop solutions and take on responsibility.

This problem is nothing new. Two years ago, a bachelor’s thesis by Julian Becker at TU Munich reached similar results. At the time, young people predominantly associated the engineering profession with terms like “difficult, monotonous, frumpy and abstract”. One third of children aged 12 to 16 assumed that electrical engineers would mainly install ceiling lights.

And of the students that nevertheless pursue a degree in engineering, more than half drop out of their studies. “Clearly the requirements are unexpectedly high and many students are overwhelmed” says Becker in a quote from his current research.

Better communication, sharper job profile

Without a doubt, electrical engineering courses have a communication problem. According to the VDE study, the reason for not studying electrical engineering is usually random impulses, rather than sound advice in job centers or universities. The industry is not succeeding in giving young people a realistic picture of the profession of electrical engineer.

So on the one hand companies are asked: What does electrical engineering offer young people, what makes it attractive, and last but not least how much can they earn? If these messages are communicated in a way that is suitable for the target group, the skewed perception of the profession can be corrected.

On the other hand, universities need to convey which tasks the course qualifies for in later professional life. This promotes intrinsic motivation and thus “stamina”, an essential characteristic for a successful degree.

Women for electrical engineering and information technology

Furthermore, women represent untapped skilled labor potential. The share of women is particularly low, at less than 20 percent each, in the subjects of computer science, electrical engineering/electronics and mechanical engineering. Even among the promising talents in STEM subjects, the majority of female students surveyed as part of the VDE study gave the industry a bad report. They still see it as being the domain of men, saying that nobody wants to be smothered in their job or listen to stupid jokes about their choice of career.

One important thing would be to have a cliché-free study orientation that conveys, among other things, the outstanding importance of IT and engineering professions for climate protection and sustainability. According to socio-economic panels, these issues are currently the focus of attention, especially among younger women.

Knowledge Base

Maya Götz with Caroline Mendel, Miriam Fößel. “Electrical engineers install lamps” the image of electrical engineering (studies on the image of electrical engineering courses, band 1). IZI, 2023. ISBN 978-3-922289-63-0