Entering a man’s world – Siemens begins training women to become technical assistantsIn 1938, a growing shortage of skilled technicians and junior technical employees was becoming noticeable within German industry, according to statistics from the Association of German Engineers (VDI). This already difficult situation was then further exacerbated by World War II. Siemens was the first electrical engineering company in Germany to react by systematically training women for positions as technical assistants as early as 1939. The newly created qualification as electrical assistant was one for which Siemens was to offer vocational training for decades.
Starting on a small scale – in the beginning was the laboratory assistant
In the late 1930s, the capacities of Germany’s electrical industry had been largely exhausted. This challenging situation was further exacerbated by World War II. To compensate for the scarcity of skilled male workers and ensure a sufficient number of junior employees, Siemens became the first company in its industry to introduce separate training programs for female employees. In the summer of 1939, 20 young women entered a training program for laboratory assistants at the central laboratory of Siemens & Halske’s Wernerwerke facilities in Berlin.
During the two-year training course, instruction in subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, electrical science and materials science was followed by 15 months of "practical individual training" at the company’s telecommunications labs in Berlin. Here, trainees supported development engineers, primarily by performing routine tasks such as setting up, conducting and evaluating time-consuming series of measurements and tests.
Training initially took place under improvised conditions. This was also a phase of gaining experience regarding the program’s formal requirements for acceptance. After initially offering training contracts to applicants who had earned an intermediate school-leaving certificate, personnel managers soon decided to accept only candidates with university-entrance qualifications and "at least satisfactory grades in mathematics and the natural sciences."
During World War II, the demand for (skilled) female workers rose continuously. As a result, technical assistants performed a growing range of tasks – and the curriculum of the relevant training programs was expanded accordingly.
The electrical assistant – A new occupation for women
In 1942, the company’s Sozialpolitische Abteilung (social policy department) approved uniform guidelines for the position now referred to as Elektro-Assistentin (electrical assistant). Potential applicants were able to learn more in a brochure. Job ads stated explicitly that female graduates with university-entrance qualifications who were enrolled in the training program would already receive an appropriate monthly salary of about 100 reichsmarks during the first year of training and about 150 reichsmarks during the second year. By comparison: engineers were earning about 600 reichsmarks per month at the time.
Each year, two courses began with 20 participants each. Training took place at headquarters in Berlin or at the so-called Technische Büros (sales offices) in Essen, Hamburg, Leipzig, Posen or Stuttgart. In addition, electrical assistants were trained at the Wernerwerk Funk plant in Vienna, Austria.
Unlike laboratory assistants, the future electrical assistants received specialized training (three to six months) after completing a common curriculum of basic theoretical instruction (six months). The content of this second part of the program varied, depending on the area in which the trainees were to be employed. Learning in groups, the young women acquired the specialized knowledge needed to work in laboratories, test facilities and design or project-planning offices. The third and most extensive part of the training program comprised individual on-the-job training (12 to 15 months), accompanied by regular classroom instruction.
By the time World War II ended, Siemens had trained nearly 800 women to be technical assistants.
"Training break" in World War II and persistent doubters – but Siemens relies on women
Following the war, management engaged in intensive discussions regarding the question of whether Siemens should continue training female electrical assistants. After all, many engineers were still skeptical about woman working as technical assistants. At a panel discussion in 1950, for instance, one participant said, "There are areas for which female electrical assistants are better suited than a man would be – for example, when it comes to negotiating with customers. In the lab, however, I think women are out of place."
Ultimately, the positive experience gained with the graduates from the early years tipped the scales in favor of continuing the program. From 1951 onward, the Siemens-Schuckertwerke in Erlangen began training electrical assistants again, and Siemens & Halske in Munich followed suit as of 1956. While undergoing training, the young women received monthly financial support of 100 German marks. When possible, trainees who were not from Erlangen or Munich were provided with accommodations in a company-owned dormitory. As an alternative, young women with university-entrance qualifications and a love of technology were also able to enroll at a physics and technology academy near Lübeck, Germany (Physikalisch-Technische Lehranstalt Lübeck-Schlutup) or to attend vocational training programs at a foundation in Berlin (Lette-Verein). Siemens-Schuckertwerke cooperated temporarily with these two educational institutions to help meet the huge demand for electrical assistants.
Qualifying for university not a necessity – Training is reorganized
Following a decision by Germany’s Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, the program for technical assistants at Siemens was reorganized in the fall of 1966. From then on, a simple high school diploma, rather than a higher-level one that qualified the graduate for university, was once again an adequate educational prerequisite. In addition, applicants could be no older than 18 years of age; during the post-war years, some significantly older women had also received training.
In Erlangen, the training program continued to focus on electrical engineering. At the company’s own technical school in Munich, the budding electrical assistants were trained to work in the field of telecommunications: the young women were able to specialize in technical drafting for circuits and design or in laboratory and factory technology.
Throughout the 1970s, the application of new technologies, above all, microelectronics, changed production and employment structures within the electrical engineering industry – and the demand for qualified specialists grew. New training programs and areas of specialization aimed to make technology-oriented professions more appealing to young women in particular. As a result, from 1979 onward, the company-run vocational schools also trained electrical assistants who specialized in data technology – first in Munich, then in Erlangen two years later.
Tighter requirements – state accreditation
On August 1, 1983, the company’s technical schools received state accreditation. As a result, trainees had to pass a state exam at the end of their two-year program – only then were they authorized to call themselves electrical assistant.
In 1989, the two vocational schools celebrated the 50th anniversary of the training program for technical assistants. Since 1939, Siemens had trained several thousand electrical and data technology assistants. The company had also been able to offer the majority of them regular employment contracts.
As of the end of September 2012, the technical schools in Munich and Erlangen – both of which had been integrated into the company’s newly founded technology academy, Siemens Technik Akademie, in 1996 – no longer offered training for technical assistants. At that time, when the qualification standards for occupations accredited by the German Chamber of Commerce were raised and degree-level cooperative education programs were introduced, the assistant roles were integrated into other occupational models. The vocational schools’ final graduating classes comprised 29 technical assistants – ten specialized in electrical engineering in Erlangen and 19 in information technology in Munich.