Having graduated in the United Kingdom, I was taught that a university degree was foremost there to prove that I could successfully apply my intellect to a chosen topic and to achieve such a level of competence as is necessary to graduate with a degree. The grade achieved would reflect ability and the extent to which I had applied myself to the task. The choice of topic seemed to have little influence on future career choices, vocational type degrees such as medicine and law perhaps being exceptions. The number of bankers in the City for example, who studied history or English literature never ceases to amaze me.

In Germany by contrast your degree topic is expected to have a very immediate impact on your career.

Thus many a parent pales when junior declares that he/she wishes to study Germanistik (German literature) or history. The only jobs open to the poor idealistic souls would be in academia, teaching, journalism, or, and for many years this seemed the most likely, in transportation – at the wheel of a taxi. And while many parents hoped that their children would one day drive a Mercedes, it would not do if it were cream coloured and had an illuminated sign on the roof.

The fact is, that then as now Germans hire for skills not for brains. The educational system places a lot of emphasis on developing a very strong skillset, both in academia and outside. When I started my first post MBA job in Germany, I was amazed at the depth of theoretical knowledge my fellow graduate recruits boasted, which far exceeded that of even the most swotty students in my class. Then there is the whole vocational training system in Germany, which ensures that all crafts have highly trained and skilled craftsmen. Whether it be plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, painters, auto mechanics or even hairdressers, all need to complete at least three years training on the job and at vocational schools to work in that field. They then need to go through another 3-5 years of training to become Master Craftsmen, a prerequisite to starting or running a business in any craft.

This highly skilled workforce has been the backbone of Germany’s economic success and it is why Made in Germany is one of the most admired marks on any product.

But, this focus on skills must change if Germany is to continue to prosper in a digital and globalised economy. Demographic change is wreaking havoc in Germany with far too few graduates entering the workforce over the next ten years. Also, due to the rapid developments in the digital economy, only few of those graduates have the skills which are truly required. At present we see an ever faster spinning carousel of people being hired away from their job for their skills, only to be replaced by someone hired away from another company for their skills and so on, and so on. This is not sustainable in the long term. It has already driven up salaries to such an extent that they are significantly higher in Germany than even in London or Zürich, traditionally two of the highest paying cities in Europe.

It is for this reason that German firms should immediately start getting comfortable with the idea of hiring the right brains rather than the right skills. The level of complexity of the digital economy may be high, but it really is not rocket science. I sincerely believe that candidates with the right mindset, personality and aptitude can be successful at just about any job in digital, given three months time to familiarise themselves with the task. Core IT jobs being one of the few exceptions to this.

And although it is my belief that this is the only viable route for employers, it is easier said than done. Beside the shift in attitudes needed from hiring managers, a recent study conducted by Infratest on behalf of Cribb Personalberatung and ImmobilienScout showed, that 51% of the thousand graduates polled ruled out a job in the online sector and that most of the remaining had other preferences first. Whereas dot.coms ten years ago could compete with the large management consulting and investment banking firms over the best talent, these days there seems to be little appeal here for those entering the workforce.

In 2012 the sector will account for € 120 billion in turnover and employ almost 400.000 people in Germany alone. It represents the future on so many levels and will work towards equalising developed and emerging markets. A lack of innovation or growth today will be hard to compensate in future. I read recently that „Data is the new oil“ and I feel that we should aim to remain at the forefront of this development.

It is high time that we all started tackling this issue. If you already are, I would love to hear from you.

Dwight Cribb
dcribb at cribb dot de