“In the future only those regions will be successful which train good employees in sufficient numbers”

A conversation with the graduated mathematician Karl-Heinz Schmidt in Ilmenau

by Dieter Sprock

The graduated mathematician Karl-Heinz Schmidt of the Technology and Start-up Centre Ilmenau was engaged in the economic development of the “Ilm-Kreis” until his retirement. The “Ilm-Kreis” is a district in Thuringia which encompasses the greater areas of the cities of Arnstadt and Ilmenau with the “Erfurter Kreuz” – the largest industrial area in Thuringia – and the Technical University of Ilmenau. The promotion of skilled workers in the region was most important in his work. He is convinced that vocational counselling and guidance is a long process that begins already in kindergarten and in elementary school. Karl-Heinz Schmidt sees himself even today as a bridge-builder between industry, university and schools, a fact that is evident in numerous projects he started in cooperation with the regional study group “Arbeitskreis Schule Wirtschaft ILM-Kreis” and the “Arbeitskreis Schule und Wirtschaft” of the initiative “Erfurter Kreuz e.V.” (see Zeit-Fragen No 50 from 12 December 2011). Both working groups, one located at the district office and the other located at the companies of the “Erfurter Kreuz” constantly strive to improve the preparation for a career.

The initiative “Erfurter Kreuz e.V.”

Eighty companies, large corporations with political weight belong to the initiative “Erfurter Kreuz e.V.”. Since the companies have problems to fill the apprenticeships positions today, either because the number of school leavers is declining or their quality is poor, the organizations seek contact with the schools and students of the region. They provide coordinating partners for schools which convey the required internships in the companies to help the companies find suitable young future professionals. The organizations analyze and structure the deals and have invited the parents to bring in their ideas. They have shown parents and children what happens in the individual plants and which training is necessary. Mr Schmidt is convinced that in the future only those regions will be successful which train good workers in sufficient numbers.

The problem with the schools

Precisely for this reason Karl-Heinz Schmidt is very preoccupied with the educational chaos in schools. This happens right in front of his eyes with his granddaughter who is a student in year six at a grammar school. There is often a lack of systematic development of the learning material and therefore the same effort as at school must be made at home again. But that does not make sense, he says, because only very few parents can do so. Sometimes young candidates are neither professionally nor personally prepared for professional life. “Looking at the Chinese students who come here, however, they have all of these requirements, they are structured, they are diligent, it is hard to believe.” This is precisely the advantage you have if you can compare different countries. In his view, the school issue is one of the main problems that we have to take care of, since otherwise we are marching through a deep hole until the gaps that are developing here will be filled again.

An offensive for university dropouts

At university one-third of the students drop out after two or at least four semesters. Then the question is: What are the young people going to do? Mr Schmidt suggested the companies to launch an offensive together with the vocational school and to set up a teaching department in which the university dropouts can make a training for skilled worker for example within two instead of three years. These will be superior skilled workers for him. “They have an excellent basic education with two or four semesters, and what a shame if it just vanishes. You must offer them at least a way to have a good start.”
The problem has not yet been solved, but he has spoken with the Pro-Vicechancellor and suggested that the names of the college dropouts should no longer simply be removed from the computer but captured on a list and then matched with the needs of the industry. This does not need much effort. He knows some of these young people who have entered the formation for the skilled workers and are very happy. “They have a completely different basis and inner readiness and were also willing to educate themselves. With the shortage of workers you cannot just leave the young people on the street.” This field, he says, can be expanded and he is glad that his female colleague now continues working in this spirit. She is also a member of the working groups and builds further bridges to university and the events that are going on within the framework of “Young scientists”.

Combination of theory and practice

In the former GDR, it was very common to combine the general qualification for university entrance with vocational training, and that was a good idea. Young people got to know also a practical training, a piece of life in addition to mere school education. This is a very important thing. “Me, for example, I made a training as tool maker during my years at school.” The profession has provided him with many practical skills that have accompanied him throughout his life. “I could always help myself, and furthermore, these skills have given me important food for thoughts. I learned three dimensional thinking, building tools or understanding how to carry out a project.” This made it easier for him to study. The combination of theory and practice cannot be replaced by anything else and he had always worked at this link.
The Technical University of Ilmenau has a good reputation. The students are in a way poached from university. At a fair organized by the students, the companies present themselves with their career possibilities. They tell the students who just bring their application documents with them which disciplines they need and then directly settle contracts with them. This know-how must be maintained.
In the conversation, it strikes me that Karl-Heinz Schmidt never just critiques but always thinks forward and looks for solutions. Might this personal approach have to do with his athletic past as a ski jumper? In fact, he once told me that ski jumping was an incredible fun for him.