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Firms work on producing tomorrow's engineers

Getting children interested in technology at a young age Michael Kneffel

Engineering firms are tapping into the potential of children aged as young as four in an effort to stem the chronic lack of skilled workers in Switzerland.

This content was published on June 28, 2008 - 10:17

Siemens have started sending educational packs to Swiss kindergartens while technology concern ABB have introduced courses at their company crèches. There are 3,000 unfilled jobs in the sector.

The Swiss branch of manufacturing giant Siemens has recently followed the example of its German mother company by distributing "discovery boxes" full of scientific experiments for four to six year olds.

The boxes, containing light bulbs, thermometers, electric motors and diagrams of the human body, are designed to allow teachers to introduce science in a fun way.

"Our main target is to encourage the fascination of technology at an early age. It's fun to find out how things fit together and work and we want to show young children that this is an interesting part of life," Siemens spokesman Marco Steinmann told swissinfo.

"There is a problem with a lack of engineers in Switzerland, but we are not trying to recruit new engineers in kindergartens. But if a few children carry on this fascination with technology then it could help the whole Swiss economy in future."

Swiss-Swedish engineering firm ABB started earlier this year to teach basic technology to the children of its employees when they attend crèches at company facilities in Switzerland.

Blue parrot

Targeting the same age group, ABB has people dressed up as the famous Swiss cartoon character Globi come to entertain children with an hour-long educational programme. The blue parrot character and his sidekick, Wendolina, lead activities that explain the basics of energy and power production.

"It's hard to say whether the children are more fascinated by Globi or the science lesson, but hopefully some of it sticks in their heads," ABB Switzerland spokesman Lukas Inderfurth told swissinfo.

"Parents think it is a good idea. These children will already have some exposure to technology concepts because they will hear their parents talking at home about their work at the company."

Swissmem, the umbrella group that represents the interests of the Swiss machinery, electrical and metal industries, applauded the schemes.

"We have a problem with young manpower coming into our industries so it is a good idea to introduce the idea of technology into the lives of young children," spokesman Ruedi Christen told swissinfo.

"I remember when I was a child having mechanical toys such as working steam engines. These toys seem to have disappeared so this is a good way of bringing children into contact with the beauty of technology."

Children's University

Siemens, ABB and other firms are also involved in educational programmes in Swiss schools for older children. In addition, companies support the "Engineers Shape Our Future" foundation's educational programme in high schools.

Higher education institutes, such as Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology and Zurich University, have recently launched programmes to inspire youngsters to take up life sciences.

The university will start running a Children's University in October aimed at teaching science and technology to 8-11 year olds.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Engineers shortfall

It is estimated that there are around 3,000 unfilled positions in the engineering and manufacturing sectors in Switzerland. Siemens Switzerland alone has 80 vacancies at present, with a total staff of 7,000 in the country.

In 2006, Economics Minister Doris Leuthard and Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin jointly launched a new government initiative, called NaTech Education. It was designed to better integrate technology into the education system.

It is also hoped that the Bologna education reforms, that harmonise courses and qualifications across Europe, will encourage more students to take up higher education courses in Switzerland.

Engineers Shape Our Future is a foundation set up by 26 companies in 1987 to increase youth awareness of engineering and technology as a rewarding career path.

The machinery, electrical and metal sectors contributed some 19.3% of total GDP in Switzerland in 2007. Annual revenues for the sector total SFr97 billion. The industries employ some 339,000 people in Switzerland and a further 428,000 abroad.

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