Wind and solar energy instead of coal and gas: That is the goal of the energy transition, but it is increasingly faltering. Behind this is a problem that plagues many industries – there is a lack of qualified personnel. If the shortage of skilled workers worsens, “the transformation tasks of the energy transition will not be manageable,” warns the trade.

“The importance of wind energy and the expansion of renewable energies as a whole is more urgent and important than ever” – with these words, Economics Minister Robert Habeck confirmed the thrust of Germany’s future energy supply at a trade fair in Hamburg in September.

In fact, the energy transition has been stalled for some time. Example of wind energy: The construction of new plants between 2018 and 2022 amounts to 1972 onshore wind energy plants – that is only slightly more than in the whole of 2017 alone, as shown by data from the German Wind Energy Association.

It is often lengthy approval procedures that slow down expansion. However, another factor could soon prevent the energy transition from gaining momentum again: the lack of qualified personnel. According to a new study by the Competence Center for Specialists (KOFA) at the German Economic Institute (IW), there is currently a shortage of 216,000 specialists in the field of solar and wind energy. First, the newspapers of the Funke media group reported on the study.

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In particular, there is a lack of electricians, air conditioning technicians and computer scientists. The shortage of electricians amounts to 17,000 people, which is the “bottleneck of the energy transition”, according to the study. In addition, there is a shortage of 14,000 specialists for sanitary, heating and air-conditioning technology and around 13,600 IT specialists.

This shortage did not come about overnight: As further studies by KOFA show, the personnel problem in the skilled trades has been getting worse for years. “From 2012 to 2018, the number of vacancies in skilled trades increased consistently. Since 2015, there have been more vacancies in trades than unemployed tradespeople. According to this, from 2015 onwards, not all vacancies in the skilled trades could be filled from a purely mathematical point of view,” according to a KOFA study in the middle of the year.

In 2019 and 2020, the demand for skilled trades ebbed away again. Nevertheless, the number of vacancies continued to exceed the number of unemployed craftsmen. Even back then, KOFA stated that the most serious gaps were in the areas of structural electronics and sanitary, heating and air-conditioning technology.

In 2021, there were “only just over 20 suitably qualified unemployed people for 100 vacancies nationwide”. In purely arithmetical terms, “only two out of ten vacancies could be filled here last year, taking professional qualifications into account”.

Some Germans felt this shortage themselves – for example, with the boom in heat pumps, which Habeck and the federal government proclaimed themselves. This is intended to reduce dependence on gas, and citizens would also have the opportunity to escape the exploding prices for energy sources for heating. In addition, the devices are considered environmentally friendly.

The declared goal: from 2024, 500,000 new heat pumps are to be installed each year. How ambitious this project is can already be seen, because many more air conditioning specialists are also needed for heat pumps. Just “15 to 30 percent of companies” are even able to install a heat pump, explained the Central Association for Sanitary, Heating and Air Conditioning.

Because many companies are already working at full capacity, potentially capable employees are not even sent to the appropriate training courses, because then you would have to do without their work. Overall, according to the association, the industry is currently short of 40,000 fitters and more than 30,000 trainees.

The current KOFA study also addresses the problem of the lack of offspring. In 2021, 14,760 training positions remained vacant in the relevant occupations of solar and wind energy. The authors see an urgent need for action to ensure that the energy transition does not come to a standstill.

“In order not to jeopardize the energy transition, securing skilled workers must be a top priority for everyone involved,” says KOFA study author Anika Jansen. In addition to image campaigns, one option is to promote interest in technology at an early stage.

Trade representatives share the fears of the researchers. Hans Peter Wollseifer, President of the Central Association of German Crafts and Trades (ZDH), told the newspapers of the Funke media group: “You don’t have to be a prophet that these transformation tasks in climate protection and the energy and mobility transition cannot be mastered and accepted with the current workforce will be fulfilled.”