Mercedes-Benz employs many in Stuttgart

By Tony Connelly, RTE Europe Editor, in Stuttgart

Stuttgart may live long in Irish folklore as the place where, in 1988, a certain Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net, but could it become the Promised Land for Irish IT graduates?

“I think the Irish would do very well, particularly in this part of Germany,” says Mark Hyland, a graduate from Roscrea who now teaches English to executives at the huge Mercedes Benz production facility outside Stuttgart.

“If you’re an engineer or with a technical background especially. The only barrier would be the language, but once the Irish people could get over the language issue, and learn it and work in it, and learn the German system, people would do very well.”

Stuttgart is the capital of the German region, or Land, of Baden-Württemberg. Once an extremely poor region with none of the natural resources enjoyed by the Rhineland and other Länder, it nonetheless emerged as an automotive giant thanks to the technical education policies pursued in the late 19th century.

It’s home to Mercedes-Benz, Daimler and Porsche, and these global brands require a vast range of ancillary SMEs providing services and spare parts. But the automotive industry has also driven a boom in the software sector, so that today Baden-Württemberg employs one fifth of all Germany’s information and communication technology (ICT) workers.

Today its home to IBM, which built an R&D lab in nearby Böblingen in the 1950s, as well as SAP and Hewlett Packard, along with some 13,000 small and medium sized IT firms.

“It’s one of the strongest, industrialised regions of Germany, and strong industry needs smart people,” says Ulrich Dietze, the Chief Executive and founder of GFT, a software company providing systems to the banking industry.

“The digitalisation of the traditional industries requires a big need for IT people, not only typically programmers, but also smart people with a physics background, with a mathematics background, so there is a big demand for these people.”

GFT opened its first software development office outside Germany in Dublin in the mid-1990s. But with the customer base in Ireland too small, and the cost of hiring new staff in Celtic Tiger Ireland prohibitive, especially when global IT companies began to pour in, the company later closed its Dublin office.

But could Irish software programmers find themselves working for GFT in Stuttgart? The region is currently suffering a major shortfall in qualified ICT graduates, with thousands of vacancies unfilled.

“Every software company wants the best talents,” says Rolf Heiler, the founder and head of Heiler Software AG, a firm typical of the Mittelstand, Germany’s formidable SME sector. “We need software architects, we need programmers who are familiar with the latest technology, and we also need people we can hire for our consulting business as well.”

Mr Heiler, which provides product data systems for global brands such as Coca-Cola and Puma, has even offered prizes to existing staff if they can recruit skilled friends or acquaintances.

According to Mr Heiler, the German education system simply has not kept up with the demand of a sector whose employment growth doubled between 2000 and 2009.

“Our business is driven by e-commerce. We are responsible for data management, inside all these e-commerce platforms, that means it’s a very fast growing market. So we need people, and we don’t get enough people from German universities so we are looking outside [Germany].”

The region is trying hard to bridge the gap. It has specialised in creating clusters, networks that allow IT companies, service providers and research institutes to collaborate closely, often in close proximity to each other.

According to the European Cluster Observatory in Stockholm, the Karlsruhe region is one of the strongest IT clusters in Europe, employing 28,000 workers in 820 companies.

The Innovation Agency for ICT and Media, MFG, has been co-ordinating with the Baden-Württemberg regional government to recruit workers from other European countries, keeping a sharp eye on Ireland’s supply of IT graduates.

It’s understood there are funds available to fly potential candidates over for interviews, but it is stressed that only qualified and skilled applicants will be considered.

The agency’s recruitment drive can be found on its website.

While many Irish graduates have often shied away from Germany because of the language barrier, the jobs landscape is changing.

“The language in the IT sector is English,” says Rolf Heiler, Chief Executive of Heiler Software AG. “We have subsidiaries in the USA, in the UK, in Australia, and the main language at Heiler when we communicate is English.

“Of course there is a language difference, but to live here in Germany with the English language is very easy. Everybody likes to speak English, and it’s not so hard to learn German.”

I met a number of Irish professionals at the Weindorf, or “Wine Village”, in the centre of Stuttgart (a kind of wine equivalent of Munich’s Oktoberfest). All spoke of the quality of life, the climate and the lower cost of living (although Germans in other parts of the country say that Baden-Württemberg is expensive).

“I think the cost of living would be a big factor compared to Dublin,” says Anna Dunne, a 26-year-old German and Spanish graduate from TCD now working as a translator and interpreter in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart.

“You can afford a much nicer apartment for the same money. Stuttgart is a very nice city, it’s a relaxed place, there are lots of young people and the Irish are very popular here.”

Another, David Fenner, 26, of mixed Irish-German parentage moved to Germany to do an MA because the fees were much cheaper than in Ireland. He says that, despite the caricaturing that has gone on throughout the eurozone debt crisis, the Irish and Germans can learn a lot from each other.

“I think Irish people tend to approach problems in different ways to German people,” he says.

“Germans are very structured, they take a lot longer to come to decisions, even if maybe at the end the decisions are balanced. Irish people have a lot more to offer in terms of creativity, innovation, approaching things in a more open way, and thinking of things that maybe the Germans haven’t thought of.”

But the skills shortage masks a graver problem. Germany has a rapidly ageing population with the workforce expected to shrink dramatically in just over a decade’s time.

Mark Doerbeck, a board member with BW-CON, the region’s largest hi-tech business network, says Irish candidates and others from overseas, are needed to address this issue.

He said: “I think we will have a lot of problems if we are not successful in finding new people, interested people, hard-working people. We have the problem of [the] ageing [population], so it is necessary to bring in people.”