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Solariders – shortage of engineers sorted

“We are solariders and we give a damn,” runs the motto of a new and highly practical talent programme where students can find and test their passion for engineering.

Albeit the main task of the students who have joined the Solaride Academy is to build a solar car for an international competition, assembling the car is a means to an end, not a goal in itself. Let’s admit – it is very important to have your solar car beat the other teams in competition in Australia or Morocco, but the real purpose of the undertaking is to get young people fascinated in engineering. Interested enough to have students choose engineering, including industrial engineering, as their future career.

“There is a lack of engineers in Estonian industrial enterprises and no-one will come and sort out this problem for us,” says Kristel Leif, co-founder and CEO of the non-profit organisation Solaride. Now in its second season, the organisation offers students invaluable experiences on top of learning, but when you are already a member of the team, you also have to take it seriously. It requires a significant amount of time and dedication, which turns out to be too much for some. “Building a solar car is a tool for us to awaken the interest of young people in engineering. In addition, it provides them with a real and practical experience, working in a team and playing different roles. It is not a case study – when you join Solaride, you take responsibility for your role. In addition to engineering work, you need to raise a project budget in the sum of 1.5 million euro, manage an organisation and communicate its aims. The main learning format here is interdisciplinary learning, in other words, learning by doing. This is supported by a mentoring programme wherein leaders in their fields train and supervise our students,” describes Leif. As is characteristic of modern organisations, self-development is an area which also receives attention as more and more employers are not only recruiting people for their practical skills, but also their social capital.

It is for good reason that Martin Villig, co-founder of Bolt and one of the supporters of Solaride, has said that Solaride Academy inspires young people: “This project will enlighten the next engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs – the next changemakers.”

As mentioned above, the creation of such a non-profit requires a proper budget, regardless of the fact that most people work in the programme on a voluntary basis. It is not cheap to participate in the solar car competition taking place in Australia in 2023. Kristel Leif is proud of the fact that Estonian universities and the private sector understand the importance of the Solaride initiative. The project is supported by top Estonian universities, public organisations (e.g. ministries and the City of Tartu) and companies. Leif recounts an episode from last spring that really drove home the sense that they are doing the right thing. “We organised the car testing event at Tallinn Airport and invited President of Estonia Alar Karis to join. At one point, we realised that the President’s focus was on his mobile phone instead of on us and we thought we had not managed to get our otherwise science-savvy President interested. But when we looked into it, it turned out that during our event the Government of Estonia had collapsed and he was signing the decree on his phone. He stayed until the end of the event,” she says, emphasising how the e-state works in Estonia and how important Solaride is, even for the Head of State.

In some sense, Solaride is a talent programme: many entrepreneurs spot the talents they might recruit in the future while mentoring. “All counterparts know – once you complete the Solaride programme, you are ready to enter the labour market and accept all kinds of challenges.” Leif says that after a couple of years of activity and focus on car-building, it is planned to launch the Solaride Academy in full in 2024.

The Car

At the end of 2021, despite the COVID-19 crisis, the first solar car constructed in the Baltics was built by Estonian students and tested in its first-ever race in Morocco Solar Challenge 2021.

During the second season (2022-2023) of Solaride, the next-generation car will be designed and built and tested at the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge in Australia in October 2023.

Solaride solar car uses 5 times less energy than a normal car on the road.

The solar car is designed to drive from the north coast of Australia to the south coast with two charges covering a distance of 3,000 km.

Before the final design, the solar car went through 15 different revisions.

It took 6 months and 10,000 working hours to build a car. About 25 young engineers and a number of other team members, from marketers to logistics, contributed to the physical constructionof the car.

Fixing the shortage of engineers

The number of higher education graduates in technology and production and processing is significantly smaller than the requirement of the processing industry for new workers. But Estonia knows that the larger the share of specialists in the industry, the richer the country or the higher the national GDP will be. This is logical because in richer countries there are stages of added value production. It is a long-term goal of Estonia to catch up with countries that have a higher living standard. It is difficult to achieve this without a sufficient number of engineers. According to a study from 2021, approximately 25,000 managers, engineers and specialists work in the Estonian industry. In the next decade we have to train about 8,700 new specialists. From those, 66% will replace the retiring workforce and a third will fill potential new jobs. We say potential jobs because, unless we have people with high-tech skills to fill those jobs, those jobs cannot be created.

The public and the private sector in Estonia are collaborating to find solutions to the labour force crisis – for example, there has been a proposal to establish an Academy of Engineering and it is considered pivotal to direct young people to engineering from an early age.

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