Whether driven by work or love, more Germans are leaving the country than are returning. Most of them are specialists, and economists are alarmed, yet they point out that those returning bring new know-how with them.
Over the past decade, an average of 180,000 Germans moved abroad each year, whereas only 120,000 of them returned home. That is the initial finding of a study conducted by the University of Duisburg/Essen and the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), which tracks Germans and returnees. Some three-quarters of those who emigrate are specialized professionals.
The veracity of those numbers has been the subject of discussion among media outlets and on social media platforms. The numbers are derived from data collected by the German Federal Statistical Office, though data collection policies have changed over the past several years, making it impossible for numbers to be definitively linked to specific years. That is why the study intentionally cites yearly averages rather than specific numbers, says Andreas Ette, who heads the research group at the BiB.
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Brain drain, or not?
Most German emigrants live abroad only for a limited time. Still, statistics show that on yearly average, 51,000 of those who leave Germany do not return. "Generally, most industrial countries have a similar negative balance when it comes to their citizens," explains Ette. He says the idea of a German brain drain — the loss of highly qualified specialists — will become acute only when far more professionals leave the country than return. "We really don't see any evidence of that in the study," says Ette. The study shows that among those who emigrate, some 76% have a college degree. That number is 68% among those who return.
Ette says it is important to look at the broader picture when it comes to the total flow of people exiting and entering the country, pointing to the overall positive balance when one factors in foreign specialists immigrating to Germany.
That is an argument that Werner Eichhorst of the Institute for Labor Economics (IZA), a think tank, agrees with: "You can't just say, we're losing 51,000 people each year and that is why we are having difficulty filling positions in the labor market." The researcher says the number of Germans coming and going is "manageable." He goes on to point out that in a country with a labor force of 45 million, that number adds up to less than 1% of the total.
Gabriel Felbermayr, the president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), a research and consulting outfit, is more critical of the figures: "Over the past 10 years we have lost half a million people, and three-quarters of them were highly skilled. That is not good news for an economy, like Germany's, that is so dependent on skilled workers." Foreign workers, he points out, cannot always make up the difference, as they are not always as well-qualified.
It is, however, impossible to ascertain whether German s are leaving sectors in need of workers here at home, as such detailed data has yet to be evaluated.
This is (mostly) why Germans leave
So what incentives are required to lure Germans back home? To answer that question, one must first know why they leave in the first place. To do so, the study's authors interviewed more than 10,000 German expats and repatriates.
The study found that the number one reason for leaving the country was an individual's own job, with some 58% of respondents citing it as their main motivation. And among those, most said that money had played a decisive role in the move — on average, emigrants earned €1,200 ($1,327) more per month while abroad. Even if one factors in that cost of living is at times higher, they still come out with a net gain in income.
For roughly 46% of respondents, lifestyle was also a determining factor. The study cited things like better weather, a different lifestyle and new experiences as motivators. More than one in three cited familial or partnership reasons for their decision. For instance, some pointed to the fact that their partners came from abroad. Thirty percent said they had followed a partner when his or her job took them abroad, and 20% did so because their partner was studying abroad. The least relevant factor was dissatisfaction with life in Germany.
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Incentives for repatriation
Werner Eichhorst of the IZA points to a competition not just to win over companies, but also employees. "Internationally agile and highly qualified workers can pick out a job offer and ask: What kind of long-term perspective does it offer me? How is the pay? But also, how does it fit this particular moment in my personal life?" He says things such as childcare and living situation may play a role in such decisions. Politicians, says Eichhorst, must make sure companies are not the only ones being offered attractive conditions, but also individual workers.
Felbermayr sees the financial element of the equation as key: "Taxes are high in Germany, and pay for highly qualified individuals is relatively low." The economist suggests Germany should look to Scandanavian countries for inspiration when it comes to issues like exempting returnees from social security contributions for a time, or at least allowing them to pay a reduced rate. He says that a similar taxation system could also be feasible.
The economist says one of the most critical sectors affected by working conditions is the academic sector. "The chances of getting ahead, making a breakthrough and making a name for yourself are much greater abroad than in Germany, simply because foreign research institutions are often better equipped." Falbermayr points to Switzerland as a positive role model in this regard. He says Swiss universities have become very attractive to foreign professors because lots of money has been invested in them. "That's something that can be emulated," he says.
Scoring points with security and open-mindedness
Eichhorst agrees that German colleges and universities are not necessarily good employers. He says job security is low, and universities often only give three-month contracts. Eichhorst suggests schools create more tenured positions or, at the least, positions with significantly longer-term contracts. He says lack of such job security has "driven a lot of people out of Germany." Still, he points out that Germany can boast advantages in terms of overall security, the rule of law and good social security benefits. Those are factors that he says are very important, especially for families.
Eichhorst also suggests companies can actively work at making themselves more attractive to workers: "People who lived abroad early in life tend to want to do so again for a while later in their careers." Experience gained as an exchange student or during travels can lead to a more international lifestyle, he says, something "that leads them to expect their employers to be cosmopolitan as well." He says German companies could attract highly skilled workers by offering them jobs abroad for a time.
Despite all of that, experts see no reason to keep Germans from moving abroad. According to Eichhorst: "People who have lived abroad gain experience and learn how to deal with different cultures, and that is something that helps not only their own career when they return: It helps the entire economy, and that is good for everyone."