Highly Qualified Employees: The Foundation of Innovation and Competitiveness

Job-integrated training and continuing professional development enhances the innovative capacity of small and medium-sized enterprises

The aerospace industry has always been a key driver of emerging technology. Companies and scientific institutions in the industry have frequently been the source of ground-breaking innovations and they still are today. Such innovations quickly spread into related areas. Systems and products used in the aerospace industry have to adhere to extremely strict quality requirements and function properly under harsh conditions. So to uphold innovation and competitiveness, organizations need highly qualified workers, ideally with broad-based training and international experience. It is against this backdrop that the German Aerospace Academy (ASA), a Steinbeis Transfer Institute at Steinbeis University Berlin, develops concepts for offering innovative, vocationally integrated training and continuing professional development (CPD).

Aerospace technology will continue to shape the development of our society in the future and it will play a decisive role in the success of many enterprises. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified young engineers in Germany and for many companies, this is even hindering expansion. Many SMEs are affected by this, especially on the upstream supply side in the aerospace, automotive, and mechanical engineering industries. This is being made noticeably worse by demographic change. As life expectation continues to rise and the birth rate remains low in Germany, we will see changes in population structures meaning that it will be necessary to work longer and longer before retirement. The rising number of immigrants can probably only provide mild alleviation to this predicament.

In a country like Germany, where we have few of our own natural resources, other aspects that generally depend on the ability of our companies to innovate guarantee our quality of life and the standard of living. Highly qualified and motivated employees are not just a key prerequisite of the innovative, competitive and commercial success of every single business, they are the cornerstone of affluence in this country. We were quick to recognize this in Germany and the authorities in many of the federal states have been channeling comparatively large resources into research and graduate education in universities and the universities of applied sciences. By comparison, expenditures on maintaining vocational skills and providing further training have been minimal until now.

However, sweeping changes in German society and the working world have every potential to impair the innovative power of SMEs. The field of training for engineers and scientists has become more multifaceted and even more complex. Especially after everything switched to the two-tiered degree system, apprenticeships and career paths have become much more diverse, more and more people are taking a break in their career, and the number of years we will work will get longer. We will have to learn to adjust to all these changes and prepare ourselves for more. To do this, new training and CPD concepts will have to be developed. We must expect politicians and businesses to establish a framework that makes it possible for young people to strike a happy balance between family life and a fulfilling career. This will also involve taking into consideration growing requirements to travel. So the right training options plus supplementary offerings need to be developed to match.

To respond to these societal and economic challenges, which became perceptible relatively early in an innovative and highly networked internationally sector like the aerospace industry, an initiative of a Baden- Württemberg aerospace forum called LR BW resulted in the 2010 foundation of the German Aerospace Academy (ASA), a Steinbeis Transfer Institute and part of Steinbeis University Berlin. The focus at the ASA lies in vocationally integrated training and CPD for engineers and scientists working at aerospace companies, automotive or mechanical engineering firms, or their suppliers. The ASA also focuses on the development and testing of innovative concepts to safeguard the workforce of specialists and forge international networks. The ASA focuses on a number of totally different target groups, working through its international network to collaborate worldwide with universities, technical colleges, research institutes and business enterprises. A Steinbeis Innovation Center, the ASA explores different ways for people to return to work (for example after parental leave) and develops training programs aimed at allowing older professionals to change career paths. It also develops and spearheads initiatives aimed at creating cross-border SMEs networks and centers of excellence in research and development.

All training and CPD programs offered by the ASA are based on the project competence concept developed by Steinbeis University. This allows company employees to study in parallel to their work, also offering the firms the right tools to expand their skills base without having to let go of cherished and trusted staff. For workers in specialist and scientific fields who would like to enter different areas, the ASA works with research and development experts to offer certification courses on key topics. These are matched to the needs of companies and place emphasis on honing skills and the personal development of course participants. The firms are involved in training, also benefitting from supervision from experts. These kinds of certification courses are an excellent way to systematically expand skill sets, laying an important foundation for lasting careers in science and technology. For people returning to work or forging new career plans, such training provides a solid basis for embarking on a new venture in a field with good prospects.

Europe’s aerospace industry is international by nature and has seen more and more upstream supply activities shift to newly industrializing countries in recent years. Countries like Mexico and China – which have well-educated and highly motivated workers with lower wage expectations – are gaining in importance as production locations, to the detriment of European suppliers. Most SMEs are not just suppliers to the aerospace industry but also work in the automotive and related industries, where there are similar developments. As a result, it is particularly important to bolster the competitiveness of German SMEs. It is also necessary to promote networking among SMEs and expand their skills base.

Against this backdrop, the ASA has been working in collaboration with five other aerospace regions in northwest Europe. In late 2012, the consortium started an INTERREG initiative called TransNetAero with the aim of strengthening SMEs in the aerospace industry. As part of the three-year project, networking is being promoted through involvement with regional aerospace clusters as well as internationally renowned research, development and training establishments. The ASA is also leading efforts to develop a joint training and CPD program to run in parallel to full-time work. This provides an addition to the vocationally integrated training program of the ASA, offering common certification courses through research institutions in other European countries, to be shared throughout Europe. Working in collaboration with universities in Delft, Liege and Derby, plus the Center for Aviation Competence at the University of St. Gallen, the ASA is currently developing a vocationally integrated multi-degree master’s in Aerospace Engineering. This will be offered in English. Students will receive training at centers of excellence in five European countries. Every year, the best transfer projects on the TransNetAero CPD program will be honored with the Steinbeis Transfer Award.

The degree program and innovative projects offered by the ASA hold particular appeal for small and medium-sized enterprises as a means of bolstering their innovative strength and a useful tool to counteract the shortage of skilled employees in science and engineering areas. To this end, the ASA has developed and is currently evaluating two pilot projects to help companies gain access to the dearth of female engineers, as well as older engineers and scientists, and to keep these people on board. One program to help trained engineers return to their learned profession, in keeping with previous qualifications, is called WING. This program is aimed at professionals returning to work after a break for family reasons, and at people who have moved into other areas of work. Participants are offered a varied program to develop their skill base, with continuing advice and support when they return to work. For example, there are special courses with an emphasis on skills transfer. One such course offers Virtual Engineer training to allow older workers to move into completely new fields of work and open the door to new career opportunities. One ASA concept has already proven its worth as part of a project called QWing 50+, which was honored with the Demografie Exzellenz Award in 2013.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Monika Auweter- Kurtz is director of the ASA, a Steinbeis Transfer Institute and a Steinbeis Innovation Center which offers vocationally integrated skills development degrees, from bachelor’s to doctoral studies, certification courses and seminars based on different qualification levels and previous education. Aside from training in technical areas, the ASA’s courses also address fields of management and equal opportunity.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Monika Auweter-Kurtz
Steinbeis Transfer Institute German
Aerospace Academy (ASA) (Stuttgart)

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