Robot wars How electric cars will charge Germany's job market

There's little doubt that the automation of Germany's car industry as it shifts to e-mobility production will lead to job losses. But a closer look reveals that it may create as many jobs as are lost.
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Robots can't do it all by themselves.

It’s rare to see a real live employee at the body-production building of Leipzig’s BMW plant. Orange-armed Kuka robots assemble the German automaker’s i3 and i9 electric models; gripping, lifting and bonding lightweight carbon-fiber components connected to the chassis and electric drive. Just a few human workers oversee operations. The building is relatively quiet save for the hum of working machinery.

This is the future of German electromobility production. While an electric car consists of some 200 parts, there are more than 1,000 parts in gasoline or diesel vehicles. The reality is that fewer engineers and supervisors will be needed on the floor. The German Automobile Association and Ifo Institute estimate that more than 600,000 of today's 800,000 auto industry jobs would be directly or indirectly threatened by the end of combustion engines.

A growing body of research claims this is just a part of the bigger picture. A lot of jobs will become obsolete with the expansion of electromobility, but what about jobs that will be reciprocally generated? Some of the latest studies peg electromobility as removing industrial positions and replacing them with new ones in its stead.

"The (electric) car will be more than just its drive system," said Willi Diez, head of the Nürtingen Institute for the Automotive Industry. "I don't think the horror scenarios are realistic. The entire value chain will not be eroded."

What is lost in the traditional automotive industry will be at least partially compensated for in other sectors.

According to Mr. Diez, mobility will come to be regarded as an "overall system" with new added value in the electric, digital, automation and connectivity sectors. A 2017 study he published predicts that German car manufacturers and suppliers could create 40,000 new jobs by 2030 through digitization alone.

Cars are destined to become moving computers, crammed with radar and ultrasound sensors, cameras, laser scanners and assistance systems. Professionals will be necessary to produce, install and maintain their technology on an ongoing basis.

A prerequisite of Germany keeping jobs at home, however, is that new automotive components are also manufactured domestically, said Mr. Diez. Asian suppliers still dominate the battery market today, racing to the bottom for sales of electric car-powering lithium-ion cells. Germany has sat back as a buyer rather than maker for the most part, frightened off by how advanced the competition already is. Mr. Diez warns this has to change. "Industry needs to pick up the pace and invest," he said, adding that he was still optimistic it would. Mr. Diez estimates a worst-case scenario of 170,000 lost jobs.

Another international study by the European Climate Foundation, published in late 2017, also found that electromobility will wipe out jobs at the same time as creating them. Its econometricians in Cambridge estimate that a total of 145,000 new jobs could be created by 2030, replenishing the workforce to a similar level. What is lost in the traditional automotive industry will be at least partially compensated for in other sectors, such as service, supply and the energy business.

The scenario is based on the realistic assumption that almost 40 percent of the car fleet in 2030 will consist of climate-friendly vehicles like plug-in hybrids, electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles. The increased production of more complex, labor-intensive hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles with both electric and internal combustion engines will likely even lead to increased employment on top.

According to the ECF, the construction and hydrogen sectors will see a net increase in Germany until 2030. The switch from imported oil to "largely domestically produced electricity and hydrogen mean greater added value from the energy used for mobility”. A 2017 study from consulting firm MHP, a Porsche subsidiary, came to a similar conclusion: electromobility will "lead to a marked shift in occupations – but not less work".

Whether electromobility will actually become a jobs engine still depends not just on the progress of technology, but also how malleable workforce individuals will be, whether in administration, purchasing or accounting, or managing robots on the production line.


A version of this article appeared in Handelsblatt's sister publication Tagesspiegel. Henrik Mortsiefer is Tagesspiegel's business editor.