Industry Reboot

The death of the coal industry dealt Saarland a hammer blow. But then the region around the city of Saarbrücken remembered its strengths – its proximity to France and its broad research landscape in computer science.

May 2020

Like many parts of Germany that relied upon heavy industry, Saarland faced enormous challenges at the turn of the millennium. Coal mining had been its economic base for more than 200 years, but the last mine closed in 2012. Five thousand jobs were lost and the region suffered an identity crisis.

Strong geographical advantage

Luckily for the region around the city of Saarbrücken, it had geographical advantages to fall back on: It borders directly on France and Luxembourg, while Belgium is only an hour and a half away by car. “Saarland is a central hub for companies that want to do business with France and western Europe,” says Thomas Schuck, managing director of the Saarland Economic Promotion Corporation. Several major freeways lead directly from Saarbrücken to France, and the region’s airport is well linked into Europe.

For the kitchen manufacturer Nobilia from northwestern Germany, this was reason alone to start building a production facility in Saarlouis (not far from Saarbrücken) in 2019. “In our search for a large site with good transport links in the immediate vicinity of France, Saar­land was particularly suitable for us,” says managing director Lars Bopf. “For Nobilia, the French market is the second largest after Germany.” The kitchen manufacturer plans to build its plant on an area of 29ha, starting production in 2020, with plans for over 1,000 employees on the site.

A technician at Saarland University working on a laser interference project. Around 2,000 people from 81 nations study at the university which is now a major hub for computer science. © Oliver Dietze/Universität des Saarlandes

In 2005, the unemployment rate in Saarland was still 10.7 percent, but it recently dropped to 6.1 percent. New job creation is partially responsible, but jobs in traditional industries have also been preserved. More than 10,000 people are still employed in steel production, for example, and a further 50,000 work for a number of automotive suppliers.

In the post-coal era, the state has also been flexing a new muscle: its embedded research landscape for information technology (IT). In the seventies, Saarland University was one of the first universities in Germany to offer an IT course. Since then, the city has evolved into an internationally recognized hub for computer science. Around 2,000 people from 81 nations study here – potential young talent for local companies. In recent years, several renowned research institutions have settled in Saarbrücken, including the Helmholtz Center for Information Security (CISPA) and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. They also offer cooperation opportunities for foreign companies.

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