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Skilled Germans plug UK jobs gap

28 September 2005
By Clare Matheson
BBC News business reporter

One UK company has had to follow the example of 1980s TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet in an effort to tackle the country's skilled worker shortage - but in reverse.

Rather than UK workers heading to Germany, German staff are coming to Britain to plug a widening engineering jobs gulf at Thames Water.

After completing an apprenticeship with Thames' parent company, RWE electricians Uwe Strack, 26, and Alex Schiffer, 23, packed their bags and headed to the UK.

Thames Water says the pair were badly needed.

"In the UK we are facing a serious shortage of young people opting for a career in engineering-related professions," Thames Water human resources director Martha Desmond says.

"The situation is particularly serious for us in London and the Thames Valley where a logjam of major infrastructure projects - such as Terminal Five, the new Wembley Stadium and our own work to modernise Victorian water main and sewer networks - means that engineering skills are in high demand."

Jobs shortage

Luckily the firm is owned by a German group - and so Thames is able to take advantage of a mounting number of qualified workers there who are finding it hard to get jobs.

"As we're owned by RWE we have a huge resource, and we are taking some of those apprentices on over here."

RWE exchange co-ordinator Helen Metz adds: "Because we have a huge surplus of apprentices in Germany, why not make use of the apprentices we already have."

And the move is good for Uwe and Alex too - they will return home with more to offer to the difficult German employment market, where five million people are unemployed.

"The job situation in Germany is not very good. Because of my experience, it will improve my CV, and employers are always searching for flexible people," Alex says.

No quick fix

hile the organisation backs the government's Apprentice Scheme, it does warn that there is no quick fix to the UK's problems.

The scheme, launched last year, is a five-year plan that aims to put vocational training firmly back on the agenda. However, it will take time to feed through to the UK's workforce - and businesses cannot wait that long.

IoD figures show about 25,000 16-year-olds leave school each year with no qualifications, and those that do get vocational educations are trained by poor providers. As a result, 135,000 vacancies were left unfilled last year

IoD director Martin Templeman warned the shortage was causing serious damage to the UK economy.

Meanwhile, the annual Pertemps Employment Trends survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) found about 20% of companies had hired staff from abroad over the last year.

Two-thirds of firms are still in need of skilled, professional or managerial workers, "particularly in the energy and water, construction, banking, finance and professional services sectors."

And while 98% of firms need to give their staff specific training, publicly funded training is failing to satisfy those needs, the CBI says.

Targets 'misplaced'

The problem is being compounded by more undergraduates turning to the arts rather than being encouraged into science and technology.

CBI analysis of government figures shows the number of 16 to 18-year-olds taking A-Level physics more than halved between 1984 and 2004, while chemistry declined by a third.

While the CBI welcomes the skills and abilities of migrant workers, it warns such measures will not provide a long time solution to the UK's problem.

"In the long term we can't rely on other countries. The priority for government must be to ensure that young people leaving school are equipped with the right basic skills and that we have a sufficient number of science and engineering graduates," Susan Anderson director of human resources policy says.

"The government targets of getting 50% of school leavers into university is totally misplaced. In Germany, just 20% go to university while others do vocational training.

"Companies have no option. They have to get the best people they can and they can only get them from abroad.

"For example, railway firms are now taking on engineers from India. We built the railways over there, yet we are now having to bring people over here to work on our networks. It's a crazy situation," he says.

But it could soon be a case of Germany calling at Thames Water once again - the group still has to find 70 recruits to fill key technical posts that remain unstaffed.

"If the pilot programme with Alex and Uwe proves successful, we will certainly be looking for others to follow in their footsteps, especially as the recent slowdown in the German economy has contributed to a surplus of trained apprentices there," Ms Desmond says.

"The scale and urgency of the programme we are implementing means we have to find immediate solutions to the skills gap here in the UK.";

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