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Brain Drain

DW staff (sms)November 3, 2007

Germany opened its doors this week to certain highly skilled engineers from the Eastern European countries that joined the European Union from May 2004. The move raised Germany's eastern neighbors' fears of brain drain.

man in factory
New labor laws put eastern European engineers on equal footing with GermansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The German Labor Ministry confirmed that the "priority test" that job applicants from these countries previously had to undergo had been dropped, as announced in September.

As of Nov. 1, German companies have been permitted to hire skilled workers from electrical and mechanical engineering sectors without giving priority to German applicants. Changes to labor laws now also permit foreign graduates of German universities to work in the country for three years.

When the plan was announced earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the government's priority would be to "give a chance to those people in Germany who are unemployed."

Economic boom

Line charts show growth on top of a symbol of Germany
German economic data is improving, though not all Germans are benefitingImage: Fotomontage/DW

Germany's unemployment in October fell below 3.5 million for the first time since 1995 and German firms are scrambling to find engineers and other highly skilled employees.

But the partial opening has raised concerns in eastern Europe that more highly skilled workers could leave, worsening the skills shortages that have already developed in this boom conditions.

Poland has been particularly affected. Since joining the EU in May 2004, some two million mainly younger Poles have sought work abroad, many in Britain, which opened its borders when Poland joined the EU.

The situation in the Czech Republic is similar to Poland's. According to official statistics, Czech firms already lack at least 50,000 workers qualified in various technical professions.

"The Czech Republic is preparing a green-card program, which could cover the shortages in some professions," a spokeswoman for the Czech Confederation of Industry, Blanka Ruzickova, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "But if those who already work here leave, the problem could intensify. It puts us in jeopardy to a certain level."

Ruzickova added that the extent of the damage would depend on German firms' qualification demands.

"If they require a good knowledge of German, the drain may not be so large," she said.

Not all companies concerned

An employee working in a Skoda production plant in the Czech Republic
Skoda isn't worried about losing its employees to German competitionImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Volkswagen-owned Skoda Auto, the Czech Republic's largest automaker, was unconcerned that its engineers would head west.

"Skoda's social benefits are above standard, and keeping a job in the future also plays a considerable role," Skoda Auto spokesman Jaroslav Cerny told dpa.

There was also concern in Bulgaria, which joined the EU with Romania in January this year.

"The opening of German borders for engineers could give its new EU partner Bulgaria a heavy blow," a professor in Sofia said, pointing to salaries in Germany that would far exceed the average at Bulgarian companies.

The country has already lost highly skilled people to the United States and Canada, and foreign investors have begun to complain about a lack of highly skilled young engineers.

The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU in May 2004, while Bulgaria and Romania became members at the beginning of 2007.

Germany was one of many EU countries that closed its labor market to the eight eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 along with Cyprus and Malta.

The restrictions were imposed for three years and then extended for a further two years to 2009. A final possible extension to 2011 is a hotly debated topic in Germany, with business in favor of opening up and politicians largely against.

Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened their labor markets immediately, and most other "old" EU members have since followed.