Wanted: Female Engineers!

The German Aerospace Academy (ASA) develops concepts for returning to full-time work

In Baden-Württemberg alone, around 6,000 female engineers are no longer in employment, despite the fact that the skills shortage is likely to worsen due to demographic change. In economic terms, this is a total waste of key resources. In social policy terms, it should be an obligation to offer working parents family-friendly and flexible career arrangements. Since its foundation, the German Aerospace Academy (the ASA Steinbeis Innovation Center) has added equal opportunities and staff diversity to its portfolio. A member of the Life- Long Learning Alliance and a partner of the Pact for Women in MINT Careers, the center is developing new and innovative concepts for continuing professional development.

It has been known for some time that successful staff diversity brings commercial benefits. The ASA offers specialist knowledge and consulting through a variety of target group-specific services related to continuing professional development and recruitment. These ASA services are of benefit to companies and women looking to return to a career in business. The center offers these services through its comprehensive network of contacts in the Steinbeis Network as well as in trade and industry. It also collaborates closely with industry associations, women’s and vocational help centers, the state employment agency and economic development organizations.

As part of a “Women in Science and Engineering” initiative, in 2011 the Ministry for Finance and Economics in Baden-Württemberg issued a state-wide request for proposals, calling for an effective concept to support the many highly qualified women wanting to return quickly to the field of engineering after childcare leave or working in other areas. The ASA was successful in gaining approval, under a project titled WING, which was piloted in 2011-2012. The program was designed to provide women with an important stepping stone back into their chosen profession by connecting them with companies that were desperately seeking qualified female employees. Central to success was the connection made between professional development and a 6-month company internship. The original program spanned four areas: aerospace, automotive, mechanical engineering and plant construction. It was received so well that the number of industries covered was gradually expanded to include industrial engineering, ICT, CAD, medical engineering and biotechnology.

Detailed interviews were conducted with 29 women to examine their previous experience and skills, develop a skills profile and gauge their expectations and current situation. They each received training on successful application strategies and attended several courses to expand their skills set. A Steinbeis certification course was specially developed for the target group of women returning to work under the title “Project Manager in Engineering.” The aim of the course was to prepare women for their future role as a female engineer working in a team. The ASA also lined up internships within companies, each specifically matched to the profile of applicants, with the goal of assisting the women in entering a full-time position afterwards. Bringing together applicants and companies throughout the state, matching up qualifications, and finding positions in a nearby area turned out to be a major challenge.

The pilot project enabled the ASA to set up an active network of companies and female academics, easy to connect eachother and with benefits for both sides. For both parties, working together is an attractive proposition. Most of the women already went back to work in 2012. Out of 27 applicants 24 had an internship and subsequently entered a proper position, and 15 of those were already back in their profession taken over in permanent employment on a part-time base early 2013.

The project did show, however, that flexible working arrangements are the real key to success. Most companies do already offer family-friendly working arrangements in their efforts to retain staff in the long term, but part-time positions for qualified professionals applying from outside the company are a rarity, especially in engineering.

The WING project not only showed that many qualified female academics are interested in professional support to return to their vocation, “starting again” really can work. This also underscores the valuable potential offered by the women returning to a full-time career. As a result, the ASA is determined to keep making targeted offerings of this kind available to women and companies. It also wants to make even more improvements to the circumstances surrounding a return to work. Following the major success of the WING project, the Ministry for Finance and Economics in Baden-Württemberg continued its request for proposals at the end of 2012. Certain course modules will be redeveloped and expanded, the scope of the program will be rolled out to included all fields of engineering, advisory services will be extended, and it is anticipated that there will be more involvement from companies and women. Last but not least, the ASA was awarded the project once again for its extended concept. As a result, the established Project Manager in Engineering certification course will be offered again and additionally a new certification course on Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is under development.

The latest recruitment drive started in early 2013. The aim is to pave the way for another 60 women to make a successful return to their chosen profession, complete with qualifications.

The skills shortage – a sensitive subject

There is an increasing shortage of skilled workers, especially among small and medium-sized companies. A number of reports have confirmed this, such as the recent report, “HR Strategy & Organisation 2012/13” issued by Kienbaum management consultants. One thing companies and industry associations agree on: This acute shortage has serious consequences. According to an estimate issued by the Association of German Engineers (VDI) and the Institute for Economic Research, last year, the German economy suffered a loss of 8 billion euros in added value simply because, every month, 92,000 engineering vacancies could not be filled.

In Baden-Württemberg alone, there is a shortage of over 20,000 skilled workers with an engineering background, and it is mediumsized companies in particular that are wringing their hands looking for technically qualified personnel. It is therefore imperative that women with family commitments are attracted back to work and that awareness within companies is raised. Supporting women keen to return to their chosen profession and advising companies on the issues encountered in this area will therefore remain an important focus of the work of the ASA.

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