Interview: Michael Lill – JobTown LSG Coordinator, Kaiserslautern, Germany

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Kaiserslautern – represented through its university – is JobTown’s German partner and the host of our second Transnational Workshop in October 2013. The Workshop focused on approaches to making education and training more responsive to the labour market, and was chaired by the coordinator of the Local Support Group himself, Michael Lill, also manager of the consultancy firm IHK Zetis GmbH – Centre for Technology and Innovation Consulting Southwest (http://www.zetis.de/). I’ve interviewed him to learn more about the situation in his patch of Europe, and to share any insight he might have, based on his experience coordinating an URBACT Local Support Group, which so far seems to be running along pretty well.

– What do you hope to get out of the JobTown experience?

We have our problems in Kaiserslautern, and we can always learn from other experiences. We’ve got a lot out of other EU projects.

For my part, I’d like to see us develop a much better understanding of this complex topic – youth employment policy. There are so many stakeholders involved, so many projects and activities, but there’s not enough coordination and strategic planning.

I hope we can do much better work as economic developers. I want youth unemployment close to zero.

– Do you think that’s possible?

Yes. Reducing the unemployment rate as much as we can must be the aim.

What’s the employment situation like in your city and how does it compare to the national situation?

Average for Germany

Employment rates in Kaiserslautern are average or near average, with general unemployment rates of 9-10%, matching the national average. Youth unemployment is 8% versus a national average of 7%, so a bit higher, but not by much.

We have many jobs with high skill qualification profiles, because of the university, the research institute, the tech sector and so on.

Service sector gaps

On the other hand, we have problems in sectors like health, hotels and restaurants. The problem is there are jobs offered there, but we have not enough people able to do them.

– So the supply gaps are mostly in service sector jobs?

Yes.

– Aren’t demographics a big concern for Germany?

Demographic problems… immigration

Yes, the German economy is doing ok for now, but in a few years intense demographic problems are going to hit us. We have to get ready to face that future.

– This brings us to immigration.

We will need openness in all our companies, to skilled people from other European countries – otherwise, we’re going to have a big problem.

We will need people who are academically qualified, but also people with trade skills and so on – middle and high skilled.

– We’ve talked about the Urbact project OpenCities,[*]which I was part of – are you confident in your city’s ability to accept new people coming in?

Perhaps the city could look at starting integration projects, to raise openness.

Though, I’d say we already have a good openness. We have lots of American people living here, lots of Portuguese… we’re used to getting along with different people.

Admittedly, it’s true, integrating different cultures and religions can be a challenge. For example some Muslim people have had a hard time integrating in our local culture. Not the Turks though, we’re pretty familiar with each other.

Need them

The politics can get complicated. Some people think immigrants are a burden, that they come here and cost us money – but that just isn’t the case. We need them.

We need to integrate people into our German society, we don’t need ghettos.

Language is key to long-term integration on all levels.

However, in our IT companies, a lot of the work is done in English – some even run their meetings in English. I know a company where 60% of the employees are from outside Germany, from 22 different countries.

The university also offers courses in English, and they have students from around 170 different countries.

Here, if you speak good English and good German, you’ll have all the opportunities anyone has.

– Do people understand the need for immigration?

Differing awareness regarding immigration

A few weeks ago, we ran a survey in our region on hiring people from other European countries and entrepreneurs turned out to not be very interested in bringing in high skilled people from other European countries. The pressure on them is still not high enough, to make them turn to international solutions.

This is completely different in the region of Ludwigshafen and Manheim (neighbouring area, where his company is also active). There’s a different dynamic there. They are more aware of the need to supplement the workforce with skilled foreign people. They have bigger companies, with more obvious job offer and demand issues.

I think in 3 to 5 years, we’ll have the same awareness here. Thing is, change can come so fast, and that can lead to a lag in doing what needs to be done, in time.

Mostly small companies

The smaller actors have less of a long-term understanding, and the larger companies do studies and see the long-term projections more clearly?

Right.

From 50,000 companies we have in our region, there are only 300 with more than 100 employees. The average company we deal with has 5-6 employees.

– Kaiserslautern stands out as a city that has undergone significant regeneration; how has the place changed over the last 20 years or so?

Structural change

We’ve had intensive change here. We were an old industrial region, with big factories – pretty run down (laughs). Nowadays, we are a hi-tech region, and our workforce has much higher levels of education. Around 10% of our companies’ staffs have strong academic qualifications; 20 years ago it would have been perhaps 1 or 2%.

There has been a major structural shift; it’s a completely different region now. I can see it because I grew up here. Things were outdated, now with the university (IT campus pictured below) and research institute, and university spin offs, we have a fresh climate – it’s more future-oriented.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

– Has perception of the city outside Kaiserslautern kept up with the pace of change?

City image issues

There is still a lack of understanding about Kaiserslautern; it’s doing very well, but the image is not in accordance. Many people don’t know that Kaiserslautern is now a very future-oriented city. When we contacted people who were educated here maybe 20 years ago, and who now work somewhere like Munich or Stuttgart, and we told them about the latest developments, they just didn’t believe it.

We invited a group of them back for a weekend, and their jaws dropped. They said ‘wow, we didn’t expect this’. Our problem is one of misperception. Externally there is either no image formed of us, or one we wouldn’t want.

Sometimes all they know about us is soccer, not the Max Planck Institute, etc.

City ‘Brand Recognition’ either non-existent or poor

Yes! Really professional regional Marketing is very important for the future of Kaiserslautern. Targeted Marketing will be a big part of our coming work.– Are you looking at city-region Marketing strategies, like Glasgow in the 90s, that sort of thing?

– What about festivals and events, using them as a way to attract attention to the city and see how it has changed?

Event strategies – a one-off won’t do it

Absolutely. We should go for new events. Glasgow’s a very good example in this regard; they did this well. All over the country, we want people to see what has happened in Kaiserslautern, we need to bring them here. Back in 2006, Kaiserslautern was one of the host cities for the World Cup, and the world was here. We had a great atmosphere, and people saw Kaiserslautern as the friendly and attractive city it is.

You need to attract attention, but you need the substance to be there – something you can raise awareness about. You need to understand how companies think, follow a very professional systematic strategy, with vision and multiple steps.

You can’t just pull it off with a one-weekend event; you have to keep the strategy up for years.

– Tell me about your Local Support Group and how it’s coming along

They have known each other for many years, but they have never really worked together in a very concrete focused way like they are now.

JobTown has been a way to get them together.

New cooperation

We’ve got people from the Chamber of Crafts, the Chamber of Commerce (which I am representing), the Development Office, and people from concerned associations (3rd sector).

Our last meeting in December 2013 was very good. Group work – what everyone does, their roles – is very transparent.

– How did you proceed?

We began with a review of all our running projects and rated them.

We put a big list of projects and actions on the wall, and we saw that sometimes we had good activities, but only for a specific target group – teachers for example.

New understanding

Based on that, we are identifying the gaps among what’s already being done. This proved surprising, as the participants hadn’t previously realised those gaps were there – it wasn’t on their radar. Now we’re looking at covering those gaps.

We’re thinking both in lateral terms – that is, developing similar actions for other target groups – and in terms of completely new initiatives.

I feel so far we’ve taken some very good steps. Now in 2014, the plan is to

New motivation

develop the new projects. The team is really motivated.

– What makes a Support Group successful?

Visible progress

We have to keep them motivated. Every time we meet each other, something needs to have been achieved in the meanwhile. People need to see some progress being made.

Minutes should be well taken. The next steps, actions to be taken clearly stated.

We have to ask people on an individual basis – personally – about how they can contribute.

– I’m very concerned with avoiding tokenism. How do you think young people can be given a meaningful voice in this process?

This is can be a challenge in Germany, like elsewhere. We have to bring young people together, on a regional level.

Associations can play an important role. Chambers and players in the educational field need to work with young people, involve them and raise awareness among them.

For example, the Chambers have special consultants, who go out and talk with both businesspeople and young people directly, to find out about their needs, their working and learning atmosphere, and so on.

Companies should also go into the schools – the future-oriented ones do.

– What do you think Kaiserslautern’s experience might offer to others?

Work together

Perhaps our working very closely with the region, the university and economic stakeholders.

For 20 or 25 years, we weren’t getting the economic spin offs we wanted from the university. So together, we started a lot of coordinated initiatives and the result was that now we have about 300 hi-tech companies in Kaiserslautern.

The politics, the research and the economics had to work closely together – this is the secret.

Change

Also, we can offer a lot of experience coping with big changes – change management if you will.

– Where’s Kaiserslautern going?

We have to continue in the direction we’ve taken, but expand it; we need to extend cooperation to the other cities and regions around us.

Kaiserslautern copy

Over the next 10 years, we have a chance to become the most attractive city in the southwest of Germany – because, on one hand, we can grow a very strong hi-tech environment and, on the other hand, we can offer quality of life, in a nice city with lots to offer and beautiful forested surroundings.

– Interview conducted by Ian Goldring, JobTown Lead Expert


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