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Educational Toys Nurture Next Generation of German Engineers
High-tech German manufacturers are using children'seducational play programmes to solve the shortage of qualified engineers in Europe's largest economy.
By James Tweedie
At a children's educational day care centre in Ludwigshafen, Germany, five year-oldLukas is learning about science by blowing through a straw into a bucket of water.
"I am producing bubbly bubbles that are filled with air," he says.
Lukas is one of thousands of children across Germany who are being introduced to science through fun, hands-on experiments. Firms are providing children educational toys and experiments as part of a long-term strategy to counter the country's shortage of engineering graduates.
Despite an unemployment rate of 7.6 per cent, German employers are suffering from a shortage of mathematicians, engineers, electricians and other skilled professionals that threatens the nation's pre-eminent position as one of the world's strongest industrial economies.
Economic research institute DIW reports that German industry lacked more 60,000 skilled technical and science workers in 2009.
The shortage is put down to an ageing population and a failure in the education system to interest children in the sciences.
The problem is not only limited to primary and secondary education. Some 30 per cent of technical science students drop out of university before graduation.
Engineering association VDMA estimates that while 65,000 engineering students began their studies in 2009, only 31,000 graduated - far less than the industry needs.
Another research institute, Prognos, predicts that by 2030 the deficit of professionals will be a massive 5.2 million.
Bosch chief executive Franz Fehrenbach says: "We will have to do much more for education and research, otherwise we will face a very dark future."
So manufacturing firms are intervening directly to foster enthusiasm for science amongst the nation's schoolchildren.
Five years ago, Mr Fehrenbach and eight other senior executives set up the Wissensfabrik- meaning "knowledge factory" - institute which promotes science and economics among school-age and even pre-schoolchildren.
Laser machinery manufacturer Trumpf executive Gerhard Rübling says: "The requirements for engineering studies are too tough and the curriculado not always suit the needs of the industry.
"We need better tutorials and teaching plans at universities and we have to ask ourselves if technical subjects gain enough attention at school."
Trumpf runs a programme for primary school children, who must trade in their cuddly toys before embarking on a "trainee week" at the firm.
During the week they design a product, such as a biscuit tin. A laser machine creates the metal parts needed to construct the product, which the children then present to their teachers and sell at school fairs.
With the money they make,they can buy back their toys from Trumpf and may even have some cash left over.