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The Social Climber

Social mobility through education: That certainly applies to Dr. Peter Mehlis. The trained precision mechanic worked for various large industrial companies in Bremen: at Airbus, Mercedes and Siemens. As a union worker, he heard about the two-year course at the Academy for Labor and Politics, the current Center for Work and Politics (zap).


From 1991 to 1993, he managed to squeeze in a program of academic foundation studies after the end of the shift. Once a week four lessons, three educational holidays and six lessons a week on a Saturday – a total of 400 hours. For Peter Mehlis, this was the initial spark. “I realized that social science, that's my thing,” says the now 62-year-old. He studied at the University, was awarded a doctorate, and today himself leads a two-year course in political and social science education as a lecturer at zap.

When Dr. Mehlis speaks of his course, his voice resonates with enthusiasm. Among the 20 participants, the professional spectrum ranges from a Turkish building cleaner to a retired judge. The average age is in the mid thirties.” All the participants are proactive members of society and over the moon about the chance they are being given at the University."

Writing is fun

It was no different for Peter Mehlis. The work at Mercedes was hard; automation was not as advanced as it is today. “We had to lift the driver cabs of trucks with our bare hands – that was 100 kilos,” he says. The doctor of sociology knows today that he always felt intellectually under-challenged. Being the way he is, he decided to put everything onto one card. “I was earning good money, but I gave up my job anyway. My wife, a teacher, was unemployed at the time and we had a three-year-old child,” he says. Nevertheless, after completing the first course he immediately enrolled as a student of sociology at the University of Bremen. “Do you really think you’re able to sit down write more than 20 pages?”, he often asked himself at the beginning. And lo and behold: even the writing part was fun!

Experiences from the world of work

The former precision mechanic completed his studies with A grades, drove forward projects as a research assistant, taught students, wrote research reports and earned his doctorate at the Institute of Labor and Economics of the University of Bremen. “My topic was the change impacting on work – I brought so much experience from the world of work with me.” And so he decided to write his doctoral thesis on the changing relationship between employee and employer in the wake of digitalization: Summa cum laude, of course.

Man of science

Peter Mehlis does not conceal the fact that there were not only highs but also lows along the way. “After completing my doctorate, I fell into a deep hole and wandered aimlessly from work contract to work contract,” he says. He has never regretted his decision to become a man of science, though. The topics which the native of Bremen has worked on, speak their own language: A consulting project for apprenticeship dropouts, analysis of the collective agreement for employment promotion in the metal industry in Lower Saxony, qualification offensive for the port industry in Wilhelmshaven, Bremerhaven, Hamburg and Lübeck. He leaves one in no doubt about where he stands and what he stands for. Meanwhile, Peter Mehlis has a permanent position at the zap. “It took me 14 years to get there,” he says with a smile.

Fun with projects

And in his free time, too, you will find him working on projects of different kinds. He spends time on the water paddling a kayak with his wife. With a friend he toured Europe for a year by bicycle. He was one of the first fathers to take parental leave and look after his daughter. “I still love practicing the craftsmanship that I learned as a mechanic,” says the man, who bought an old Bremen house in the suburb of Neustadt and renovated it from top to bottom with his own hands.