After her apprenticeship at Volkswagen, Michelle Gabriel mastered welding, cutting, bending and stretching of metal, but a few years later, it was not chassis but software frameworks that she assembled after a quick change of career.
The 24-year-old’s career path reflects the transformation the automotive industry is undergoing, moving away from its traditional focus on building combustion engines to developing software.
The new German government led by Olaf Scholz, who took office on Wednesday, wants to accelerate this pivot with the objective of having 15 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2030 against just over 500,000 today.
But the upheaval caused by the Electricity Revolution is casting doubt on the livelihoods of thousands of employees in jobs where their skills may no longer be needed.
Managers are now faced with the challenge of preparing their staff to build the car of the future.
– Cognitive skills – Although she thought the welding job during her apprenticeship was “great”, Michelle Gabriel could not imagine entering a trade that “could be gone in five years,” she told the ‘AFP.
But “construction mechanic was a profession already on the way to disappear when I finished my training”, specifies Gabriel, who like all apprentices started working on the factory line.
When the automotive giant offered him to join its “Faculty 73” program, intended to train software developers, Gabriel signed up.
Open to Volkswagen employees as well as outside applicants – who have to pass a series of tests but don’t need a degree – the new type of apprenticeship is the automaker’s response to the need for new skills.
Electric cars require fewer workers to assemble the units on the factory line and more computer technicians and electrochemists to develop the batteries that power them.
With around 100 students per year, the Faculty 73 program was launched in 2019 at Volkswagen’s flagship plant in Wolfsburg, northern Germany. Yet the initiative will still not meet the manufacturer’s needs for new skilled workers.
– Digital training – This prompted Volkswagen, like many other German automakers and their suppliers, to launch unprecedented internal training to update existing roles.
Depending on the employee, the digital course could last anywhere from a few weeks to a year, the time to acquire the necessary knowledge.
“There are a lot of people that we have to get and we won’t get there using only traditional methods,” said Ralph Linde, director of the Volkswagen Group Academy.
Instead of teaching in classrooms, Volkswagen is using online resources that can be deployed on the scale needed, without which Volkswagen “would not be able to handle this big task,” Linde told AFP .
The group plans to offer employees a personalized online platform to identify potential career development opportunities.
One of the problems, Linde conceded, is that “rapid technological developments” mean that it is sometimes difficult to anticipate the skills that workers in the group will need, even over the next two years.
Electric vehicles and the growing role of software in the automotive industry represent a “fundamental paradigm shift” for workers, although it “does not mean less jobs overall but different jobs”, said Johannes Katzan, representative of the IG Metall trade union in the states of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.
In total, including its extensive network of suppliers, the automotive industry in Germany directly employs 830,000 people and 1.3 million indirectly.
Experts’ estimates of the number of these jobs that could be threatened by the digital switchover vary from 180,000 to 288,000.
Still, a report by the Fraunhofer Institute, commissioned by VW last year, found that massive layoffs could be avoided, provided it accelerates its training programs.