Notes from Germany: The Economy and Engineering

For an international perspective on the global economic climate, we turned to Sigmar Wittig (HDR ’00), former president of the University of Karlsruhe (TH) in Germany and chairman emeritus of the German Aerospace Center. He is a member of the College of Engineering’s Advisory Council. Purdue Engineering has a close partnership with the University of Karlsruhe through exchange and learning programs such as the Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education (GEARE).

Sigmar WittigQ: How has the global financial crisis been felt in Germany?

A: The global financial crisis has been strongly felt in Germany during the last several months. Some spectacular governmental actions were necessary to stabilize the banking sector, as well as, in recent days, the industrial sector (i.e. Opel, a former General Motors subsidiary and a car manufacturer of long standing). Germany is the world’s largest exporter and as such strongly dependent on international trade. The GNP probably will drop more than 4 percent.

On the other hand, the impact on everyday life has so far not been as strong as originally expected. This is due to the fact that German industry tries to avoid major layoffs. Experience shows that it is extremely difficult to rehire qualified trained personnel after an economic recovery. The German industrial structure is largely determined by small- and medium-sized companies that show remarkable flexibility. In addition, the private debt level and lending in Germany is lower than in other countries.

Q: Do you think that all parts of the world are feeling the effects of the economic downturn?

A: One of the characteristics of the present situation is the—historically almost unique—fact, that the majority of countries in all parts of the world are affected. This is of particular importance for the German economy with its high dependence on export and technological products, and relatively few natural resources.

Q: How can Purdue’s College of Engineering make positive impact in this situation? Are there opportunities, despite the negative climate?

A: The present crisis bears large potential for the future. It has become obvious that real goods and services will have to be the focus of future economic activities. This is the time of the modern engineer and new strategic considerations. Energy, mobility, environment, healthcare for an aging society, information, disaster management—these are just a few challenges for engineers and, consequently, for engineering colleges, particularly those with a reputation like Purdue. The economic downturn also reconfirms the role of technological universities such as the Universitat Karlsruhe (TH) where, for example, around the turn of the 19th/20th century scientists like Heinrich Hertz and mechanical engineers like Wilhelm Nusselt (Nusselt-Number) and Franz Grashof (Grashof-Number) and their students had a tremendous impact on industrial and social developments nationally as well as globally.

Engineers have to accept a leadership role in the new process of orientation. In Germany, industry is recognizing this as there continue to be numerous job opportunities for engineers. It is my impression that this also applies to the United States, as well as to other countries around the world.