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German industry generates high earnings

Despite major economic fluctuations, earnings have risen in most sectors of industry over the past few years. The exporting sectors of industry play an especially important role in this. The automotive industry remains the leader: it posted earnings of 404 billion euros in 2016. As an innovation leader, it is an important contributor to growth and prosperity. Vehicle manufacturing also secures earnings for other sectors, as it has close links with companies in the chemicals, electrical engineering, steel, metal and textile industries. 

Nevertheless, companies in the food industry are also performing well. With a turnover of 172 billion euros in 2016 and as the third-largest food exporter in the world, they offer a wide variety of employment opportunities in wholesale and retail. The electrical engineering and electronics industries offer an equally broad portfolio of services; their earnings totalled 179 billion euros in 2016. You can find out more about Germany’s leading industries here.

As a centre of industry, German has one of the most highly developed economies in the world. One result of this is a high standard of living, as you can see from its gross domestic product (GDP) for 2016 of 48,839 international dollars per capita, after adjustment for purchasing power. GDP measures a country's economic performance based on a national production of goods, products and services. To make comparisons between countries, GDP is adjusted for price and currency differences and stated as a per-capita value. Among the EU states, this puts Germany in seventh place after Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. Germany also performed well in a comparison with the other leading industrial nations. Although the immigration country USA ranked ahead of Germany, with 57,325, Canada and Australia was lagging significantly behind, with 47,025 and 47,770 international dollars. Germany is also characterised by a relatively even distribution of income. Native Germans and immigrants benefit from high GDP and the distribution of income. They are able to live in prosperity – and because of the democratic structures, in freedom and security.

The German model

Writing about Germany’s successful economy, Time magazine recently remarked that many German companies have specialized in the “unsexy side of the industrial spectrum: not smart phones or iPads but machinery and other heavy equipment”.

Some German companies, not least carmakers and the world’s third-largest software supplier, might well disagree and insist that their products are very much on the “sexy side” of industry. Yet the analysis is essentially correct: it is highly specialized industrial companies producing highly specialized goods that constitute the engine of growth in the German economy. Following the much-lauded era of virtual wealth creation on the financial markets, it is as well to recall the following principle: industry has always been a major plank of our prosperity. It accounts for as much as 22 percent of the German economy as a whole, a share that compares favourably worldwide. In France, Italy, the UK, and the USA, for example, industry plays a much less important role in the economy.

Almost 92 percent of Germany’s visible exports are industrial goods. German companies are leading in many sectors and in many markets worldwide. This applies, for example, to so-called green technologies – i.e., products in the fields of environmental and climate protection. In the burgeoning sector of renewable energy, which includes photovoltaics, wind power, and highly efficient power plant technology, the German economy has a global market share of 30 percent.

German innovations

Airbag (1971)

Synthetic sack, which unfolds in case of an accident within 20 to 50 milliseconds between the car passengers and the inner room of the vehicle. The first airbag patent was granted to Walter Linderer in 1951. Daimler-Benz developed the idea to make it practicable.

Aspirin (1897)

Popular medicine which helps against pain and inflammations and has an anticoagulant effect. The active substance is acetylsalicylic acid.

Book printing (1440)

Mechanical process for reproducing texts on paper with coloured stamps for every letter and every punctuation in one printing press.

Dowel (1958)

The dowel serves to attach a screw or an object to a wall. It consists of polyamide and is inserted into the wall through a borehole. Through turning in the screw the dowel streches in the wall and enables a safe grip.

Dynamo (1866)

Elektrical generator which converts mechanical energy to electrical enegry.

Liquid wood (1998)

Thermoplastic biomaterial which is mainly produced from the wood components lignin and cellulose. It is traded under the name "Arboform".

Glider (1894)

Aircrafts which moves along solely using air stream and does not need a fuel-driven motor. The glider is a very light sailplane.

Light bulb (1854)

Artificial light source in which electric power heats up an electric conductor. The conductor gets heated so much that starts to glow.

Helicopter (1936)

Aircraft which takes off vertically and not horizontally. The wings turn at the motor-driven rotor and make the helicopter raise up in the air.

Motorbike (1885)

Motorcycle with two wheels and one to two seats.

Harmonika (1821)

Hand sized wind instrument with metal body. Through blowing air into the air ducts which are arranged in parallel, the instrument produces sounds.

MP3 (1995)

Process to compress audio data which has been developed at the Frauenhofer Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen in th ecity of Erlangen in the south of Germany.

Periodic table (1864)

The periodic table organises all chemical elements with increasing atomic number after their chemical property into periods and groups.

Scanner (1951)

Device for data collection which gathers data from a template (e.g. a document) with sensors and transforms them into digital data.

Thermos (1903)

Insulating storage vessel which lenghtens the time before the exchange of temperature between the bottle's content and the surroundings through a vacuum. It is mostly used to keep drinks like coffee and tea hot but can also be used for cooling purposes.

Toothpaste (1902)

Increases the effect of teeth cleaning with a brush. Toothpaste contains abrasive particles and active substances to combat dental diseases like caries and periodontosis.

Germany is not only been regarded as the country of great innovations in green technologies –groundbreaking inventions include the motorbike, the tram and the car. In a globalised world, a country’s innovative strength is crucial if it is to remain one of the global players. In 2016, Germany topped the European rankings, with 67,899 patent applications. To achieve this capacity for innovation, Germany’s researchers and engineers have to be creative in developing and bold in implementing ideas. But the lack of up-and-coming qualified workers is an obstacle. In order to further strengthen its ability to innovate, Germany is therefore partly dependent on the immigration of highly qualified professionals. In short: smart people are important now and will continue to be so in the future, regardless of whether they come from Germany or from far away.


Europe’s largest economy scores highest with its excellent infrastructure, its highly developed corporate and services sector, its system of higher education, its first-rate vocational training, especially in the skilled crafts and trades, and, last but not least, its capacity to deliver technological innovations.

Digitisation is one field where the drive for innovation is really set to take off in Germany. The digital revolution is changing industrial and work processes and is having an impact in many different core sectors of the German economy. With over 30,000 patent applications, accounting for more than 11 percent of the applications filed at the European Patent Office, Germany is at the forefront of European innovation.

Expenditure on research and development are an important indicator of a country’s prosperity and competitiveness. In 2015, Germany spent around 2.9 percent of GDP (BIP) on research and development. Compared with other European countries, that is a considerable proportion. The average for all 28 EU countries together was 2.0 percent of GDP in the same year.

Introducing the German Mittelstand

More than 99% of all German businesses are small to medium-sized companies and therefore fall into the “Mittelstand” category. This is not so much the case in other countries and in some, the German word has even been taken up into the local language because there is no exact equivalent for it. They range from small, innovative software-smiths to globally operating mechanical engineering firms right through to venerable old artisan businesses, and beyond. In purely statistical terms, any business with fewer than 500 employees is a small and medium-sized enterprise, short SME. But the term “Mittelstand” is often used to include much larger companies too if they are run in the same spirit as a small or medium-sized enterprise. In that case, it means that the owner or owners take the business decisions largely on their own – and assume the risks and liability. Most SMEs are working to secure the company’s long-term existence and place great value on lasting relationships with customers, suppliers and other businesses. As an employee too, you are more than just “one of the crowd”. Moreover, many SMEs take an active role in their regions by sponsoring education, culture and sport.

Many German SMEs are – in line with the traditional German taste for inventing and “tinkering” – technology driven. The principal sales argument for their products and services is not usually one of price, but the quality and the large number of innovations that have found practical implementation. A large number of these companies are the European or worldwide market leaders in their sector. Within the usually fairly small, internal structures of these companies, numerous employees working in various disciplines, such as development, production, sales and service, are involved in the innovation processes and so play their part in innovation too.

In fact, truly innovative products are often the work of so-called hidden champions. These companies are, in the main, largely anonymous members of Germany’s Mittelstand, yet belong to the top three in their sector worldwide.

As many as 1,500 of these hidden champions help power Germany’s economy. Since many are tucked away in the provinces, their contribution is sometimes overlooked. Quite a number of them employ a workforce of several thousand people. As employers, they are prized, since they tend to take a long-term view and generally provide secure and well-paid jobs.

Information on the internet

Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy

Main focus of the economic policy (German, English, French)

Research in Germany – Land of ideas

Diverse research opportunities (German, English)


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