Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting with business and union leaders to discuss ways of coping with a shortage of skilled workers. One idea being considered is to make it easier for skilled foreigners to work in Germany.
German industry is facing a skilled labor shortage
Klaus J. Bade is the chairman of the Advisory Council of the Foundations for Integration and Migration. He spoke to Deutsche Welle about his ideas on how to solve Germany's shortage of skilled workers.
DW: Germany is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers in the fields of mathematics, information technology, the natural sciences and technology. Germany needs not only more engineers but also caregivers and doctors. To what extent can this problem be solved through more vocational training?
Klaus J. Bade: We need two things. First of all we need training and refresher courses for those who missed the boat in this respect. In addition, we need to encourage skilled workers to immigrate. Only by doing both can we resolve the problem. Because according to all of the information out there - and all of the foundations agree on this - by the year 2025 we will be facing a shortage of between five and six million workers. Of those, 2.4 million will be academics. It's a problem that is developing over the long term but we need to counter it in the medium term. However, encouraging immigration doesn't mean companies have any less of an obligation to train young people. The question of which areas of expertise we want to increase the workforce in, through both vocational training and immigration, will have to be looked at very carefully. For this reason it will be important to have a system that is as flexible as possible. One example we could look at as a possible model is Austria's red-white-red card.
How does this card work?
Bade believes that immigration is part of the solution
Basically it is a more flexible version of the green card that we once had in Germany. It's a system in which you can determine year-by-year, or even at shorter intervals, in which professions there is a shortage and in which areas immigration should be made easier.
In which areas would it be better to step up training here or encourage immigration?
There are three areas, which are clearly feeling the crunch. Firstly, there are the engineers and mechanical engineers. Then there's a problem with caregivers for the elderly, where we still see a lot of irregular employment. This involves mainly Polish women, who now can work here officially, but don't because they would earn too little. And then, the old and the sick couldn't pay them enough anyway, because the nursing care fee scales haven't been properly adjusted. This is an example that shows us that we do not only need to increase training and skilled immigration, but we also have to look at structural changes, in order to help ourselves.
What's needed in the fields of engineering and mechanical engineering?
We can do three things: First, we can increase training and refresher courses. Second, in the spirit of the legislation on recognizing foreign qualifications, we need to bring immigrants back into the workforce, whose diplomas haven't so far been recognized. I believe there are tens of thousands of people in this situation. Third, we can push for preferred immigration in these two areas. What is important is that we don't do it in an encrusted system full of paragraphs and forms. It needs to be in a parallel system that is as flexible as possible. It's naive to think - and this has been disproved umpteen times - that the first qualified immigrants should only be interviewed in large numbers by the immigration authorities after the Labor Agency has found jobs for the last of the long-term unemployed.
Are there enough skilled workers in other EU countries to fill the gap in Germany's workforce?
The EU provides for freedom of movement, so no action is needed here. But the labor market needs to be attractive enough to encourage people to come. The current economic situation will likely cause people - including people from the EU - to come to Germany. That's because Germany is doing well during this crisis. In many other European countries this isn't the case. Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent. That's almost four times the rate in Germany. Since the chancellor visited Spain in February and expressed Germany's interest in attracting qualified and highly qualified workers, skilled Spaniards have been rushing to language schools to learn German in the hope of possibly moving here in a year's time. But it is still the case that Germany is not as attractive as it once was. It's been overtaken in this regard by a whole host of countries. Germany was once the prime magnet for labor, but today it is in the middle of the pack. Countries like Great Britain, Sweden, Austria - and beyond the EU, Switzerland too - are ahead of Germany.
What about skilled workers leaving Germany?
Here we can observe that in the most migration-intensive triangle within Europe which affects Germany - Germany, Austria and Switzerland - Germany is the clear loser in terms of migration. Many more Germans go to Austria and Switzerland than come here from those countries. And if you want to look at the bigger picture - factoring out the ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union who are counted as "returning Germans" - one can say that, in the last 15 years, from 1994 to 2009, half a million more Germans have gone abroad than came or returned to Germany.
Foreign students could be a source of highly skilled labor
Will we have to make it easier for non-EU citizens to immigrate, if we are to get to grips with the lack of skilled workers?
The Advisory Council has made three suggestions: First, the minimum annual income should be reduced from 66,000 euros ($94,800) to 40,000 euros. That's what the employer has to pay an immigrant in the first year of employment. Second, we finally have to become conscious of the fact that foreign students in Germany are ideal prospective immigrants. They are young, highly intelligent, they are skilled in their chosen fields, and they are highly interested and motivated. These people should be given not one but two years after graduating to find a job. The obligation requiring them to find work in their chosen field shouldn't be overly strict. The third point is whether the criteria for immigration should be relaxed for people with skills that are in demand. Here you could highlight the areas in which there is currently the greatest lack of skilled workers. At the moment that would be engineering and mechanical engineering. The "five wise men," the council of German economic experts, said clearly in their last report that if we don't do this we will pay for it in terms of slowing economic growth.
Klaus J. Bade is one of Germany's best-known researchers on immigration and the chairman of the Advisory Council of the Foundations fro Integration and Migration (SVR). Since the early 1980s, Bade has pushed for a more proactive immigration and integration policy. The SVR publishes an annual report on integration and migration. The SVR's advisory board describes itself as an independent, scientific body, which expresses opinions on integration and migration policy issues.
Interview: Klaudia Prevezanos / pfd
Editor: Susan Houlton