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German carmakers are fighting to retrain their workers for the electric age

Issued on: 12.12.2021 – 04:16Changed: 12/12/2021 – 4:14 am

Wolfsburg (Germany) (AFP) – After completing her apprenticeship at Volkswagen, Michelle Gabriel was a master of welding, cutting, bending and stretching metal, but only a few years later it is no longer chassis, but software frameworks that she assembles after a rapid change of profession.

The 24-year-old’s professional career reflects the change in the automotive industry, which is shifting from its traditional focus on building internal combustion engines to developing software.

Germany’s new government under Olaf Scholz, which took office on Wednesday, wants to accelerate this shift with the aim of having 15 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2030, compared to just over 500,000 today.

But the upheaval caused by the electric revolution is casting doubt on the livelihood of thousands of workers in jobs where their skills may no longer be needed.

Managers are now faced with the challenge of preparing their workforce to build the car of tomorrow.

Cognitive abilities

Although she thought the welding work was “great” during her apprenticeship, Michelle Gabriel could not imagine entering a profession that “could disappear in five years,” she told AFP.

But “construction mechanic was a profession that was disappearing when I finished my training,” says Gabriel, who, like all apprentices, started on the production line.

When the auto giant offered her the opportunity to take part in its “Faculty 73” program, which is intended to train software developers, Gabriel signed up.

Electric cars require fewer workers to assemble the units in the factory and more IT technicians and electrochemists to develop the batteries that power them JENS SCHLUETER AFP / FILE

Open to Volkswagen employees and external applicants – who have to take a series of exams but do not need a qualification – the new type of training is the traditional automobile manufacturer’s answer to the need for new skills.

Electric cars require fewer workers to assemble the units in the factory and more IT technicians and electrochemists to develop the batteries that power them.

The Faculty 73 program started in 2019 with around 100 students per year at the Volkswagen flagship plant in Wolfsburg in northern Germany. However, the initiative will not yet meet the manufacturers’ need for new skilled workers.

Digital drive

Like many other German automobile manufacturers and their suppliers, this has prompted Volkswagen to launch an unprecedented internal attempt to update existing roles.

Depending on the employee, the digital course can last between a few weeks and a year, time enough to acquire the necessary knowledge.

“We have to qualify en masse, and we won’t achieve that using traditional methods,” says Ralph Linde, Head of the Volkswagen Group Academy.

Instead of teaching in the classroom, Volkswagen uses online resources that can be rolled out to the extent necessary, without which Volkswagen “would not be able to cope with this major task,” Linde told AFP.

A fully automated production line at the Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg.  The German auto giant has started a program to retrain workers to become software developers
A fully automated production line at the Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg. The German auto giant has started a program to retrain workers to become software developers John MACDOUGALL AFP / FILE

The group plans to offer employees a personalized online platform to identify potential career development opportunities.

One problem, Linde admitted, is that due to the “rapid technological development” it is sometimes difficult to assess the qualification requirements of the Group’s employees over the next one to two years.

Electric vehicles and the increasing role of software in the automotive industry represent a “fundamental paradigm shift” for employees, even if this “does not mean fewer jobs overall, but different jobs,” said Johannes Katzan, representative of IG Metall in the federal states of Lower Saxony and Saxony. Stop.

In total, the automotive industry in Germany, including its huge supplier network, employs 830,000 people directly and 1.3 million indirectly.

Experts estimate how many of these jobs could be threatened by the digital switchover between 180,000 and even 288,000.

But an expert report by the Fraunhofer Institute commissioned by VW last year showed that massive layoffs could be avoided – provided that it accelerates its training programs.

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