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German firms embrace ‘quereinsteiger’ amid labor shortage

  • April 25, 2023

Browse job ads in Germany these days and you will find many that seek to recruit so-called quereinsteiger — literally “lateral entrants” — for a wide range of jobs.

Traditionally, German employers have had a strong preference for applicants with a formal qualification matching the job. But with a labor shortage in many sectors, employers are now being forced to get creative. Today, many are considering candidates from completely different sectors who don’t have the academic or vocational training the job usually requires and are looking to change careers.

Germany’s rail industry depends heavily on workers interested in starting a new career operating trains. About 5,000 additional train operators per year are needed, according to the Pro-Rail Alliance, a German organization promoting rail transport.

A train driver looking out of the window of the train's cockpit
Only about 500 Germans complete the traditional three-year apprenticeship as a train operator every year — far too fewImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture-alliance

Retraining can pay off

Among new hires, people making a career change now outnumber traditional hires. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s largest railway company, reported it hired about 1,500 individuals last year for retraining as train drivers.

Making a career pivot can really pay off. During the nine to 12 months of retraining, some railway companies pay trainees more than €2,500 ($2,759) per month — far more than the €1,089 apprentices in the traditional three-year program earned, on average, in 2022. Unsurprisingly, this attracts not only career changers to the fast-track training but also those who are entering the workforce for the first time.

The demand for train operators won’t decline any time soon, said Djubin Pejouhandeh, a workforce expert with Pro-Rail Alliance, even if automated driving becomes more widespread. “Even highly automated trains will still require drivers to intervene if necessary,” Pejouhandeh told DW.

More and more people making a career change

What’s happening in the rail industry is in line with trends taking place in the German labor market as a whole.

The share of workers making a career change has risen in recent years, said Duncan Roth, a labor market researcher with the Institute for Employment Research. About 0.5 to 1% of employees change their occupation every month, he told DW.

Tracking the total number of people changing careers is difficult, he said, because the number of occupation changes recorded also depends on the number of different occupations used for the analysis. Moreover, some of these workers actually have the formal qualifications their new job requires.

Where did all the skilled workers go?

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Career changers ‘harmful’ to students?

For those who need retraining, a shorter retraining period can make a career change more attractive. But in some fields, such as teaching, this has led to concerns over quality.

In January, the Philologenverband, a teachers’ association, cautioned that lowering the qualifications to put people who were interested in making a career change in the classroom would “cause harm to students.”

In Germany, public school teachers are only considered fully qualified to teach after completing four to five years of university studies in education and one to two years of practical training.

But the number of teachers to qualify via this time-consuming route is too low. Researchers and officials have forecast a shortage of 26,000 to 40,000 teachers by 2025, at the earliest.

Ever more career changers are being hired to fill this gap. The share of newly hired teachers that don’t have the traditional practical training under their belts has more than doubled recently — from an average of 4.4% in the 2012-2016 period to an average of 10.8% from 2017-2021, according to statistics by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education.

Retraining options in short supply

Axel Gehrmann, a professor of educational science at Dresden University of Technology, is in charge of a retraining program for second-career teachers in Saxony. “There is no evidence that students learn less if they are taught by people who have made a career switch,” Gehrmann told DW, “provided they have been properly retrained.”

However, Gehrmann said, Saxony is currently the only German state that provides a systematic qualification program for career changers.

A refugee from Eritrea, Tedros Gebru, working at a cable manufacturer in Stuttgart, Germany.
The immigration of qualified foreign workers seems the only viable solution to Germany’s labor problemImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Gollnow

To keep schools afloat, Gehrmann sees no alternative to hiring more of these candidates. Attempts to increase teachers’ workload, for example by restricting part-time work and increasing class sizes, would quickly reach their limits, he said.

But relying on people changing careers to fix Germany’s labor shortage as a whole has its limits, too.

“An overall labor shortage cannot be alleviated simply by shifting workers around. This would only work if there was a surplus of labor in some sector,” Roth of the Institute for Employment Research told DW.

Hence, despite the rise of the ‘quereinsteiger,’ immigration remains key for the German labor market.

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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