When Guido Rebstock came into his office on Feb. 8, booted up his computer and checked his email, he could hardly believe his eyes. About 2,500 applications had accumulated in his mailbox -- all overnight and all from Portugal. It quickly dawned on the head of the government employment agency in Schwäbisch Hall, a small city in southern Germany, why he was being flooded with applications. A short time earlier, the city had gone on a media offensive. City officials invited seven journalists from countries affected by the euro crisis, including Greece, Italy, Spain and even Portugal, for two days to inform them about job opportunities in the area.
Little happened after Greek and Spanish journalists published stories. In contrast, journalist Madalena Queirós unleashed a wave in her home country. More than 10,000 Portuguese people have already applied to firms and the city's employment agency. "Because it was the only article that was available online, the news spread like wildfire on Facebook," Rebstock explains.
So far, 18,127 people have liked Queirós' article on Facebook, and applications continue to flood Rebstock's in-box. Even though the campaign was supposed to be focused on skilled workers, the employment agency is receiving applications of all kinds: cleaning ladies and construction workers are applying alongside engineers and IT specialists. "They represent virtually every profession that is imaginable," Rebstock told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
So what did the journalist write in the business magazine Diário Económico that led so many Portuguese people to imagine Schwäbisch Hall to be some kind of heaven on Earth? The article, which ran under the headline, "Get to know a German city that wants to put Portuguese to work," promises Portuguese suffering from high unemployment a town that seems to be flowing with milk and honey. According to the story, here a person can earn on average €2,700 ($3,500) per month, children go to school for free and one can live in a state where even university fees were recently abolished thanks to its governor, a member of the Green Party. Furthermore, Schwäbisch Hall never has traffic jams, not even during rush hour, Queirós reports.
And that's not all. Expect healthy food in the town, it continues. And because she knows her countrymen, the author doesn't fail to quickly clear away common concerns. Isn't it supposed to be bitter cold in Germany? Her answer: Homes are very well equipped for that. But aren't Germans famous for their reserve and distance when it comes to meeting people? Don't worry a bit about that, she answers, they are helpful, friendly and accessible. People persuaded by her article were asked to apply: "If you are interested, please send your resume in English to (the local government employment agency)."
Schwäbisch Hall, otherwise best known for the mortgage lender of the same name with the slogan "Build something here," is located about 60 kilometers (around 37 miles) northeast of Stuttgart. The town has 37,000 residents, but the entire country has about 188,000. Currently, around 3,500 people are registered as jobless, translating into an unemployment rate of about 3.4 percent in Schwäbisch Hall. The town has around 2,500 unfilled positions, says Rebstock of the employment agency.
For people from countries hit by the euro crisis, where the job market is in difficult to bleak condition, those numbers sound like a dream. Spain recently announced a new record high of 4.7 million unemployed. In Greece the catastrophic job outlook is driving ever more people into the streets. In Portugal the situation is hardly any better. Against this backdrop Schwäbisch Hall seems like an attractive way out.
A few days after the report first appeared, a new article came out stating that already more than 2,000 people applied in the town, which is urgently seeking workers. The mail has flooded the local employment agency, but applications are also being sent directly to most companies in the town. "They wrote emails to every address they could find on our website, it is unbelievable," says Robert Gruner, a Schwäbisch Hall city spokesperson. Indeed, it appears that Queirós' reporting raised a lot of hopes. "The town's employment agency promises to do everything it can to find you a position," the article states.
The city's campaign to attract foreign workers cost about €10,000 ($13,100) or about €1 for every applicant. In the days immediately after the article went viral on the Internet, Rebstock had to assign as many as eight employment agency workers to deal with the onslaught of mails, sort applications and find and contact appropriate potential employers. His employees had to work overtime just to process everything.
Some Portuguese Even Traveled to Germany To Apply
About five percent of the mails were written in Portuguese and another nine to 10 percent in English. The rest were in German. Still, not all the applications hold much promise. "Seventy-five percent of the applicants already have jobs in Portugal and we are concentrating on unemployed Portuguese," explains Rebstock.
A few Portuguese were so excited that they didn't bother to start with an email, but instead came directly to Rebstock's doorstep to ask him about work. It actually worked out in some cases and he was able to directly arrange an appointment with an employer. One couple stopped by soon after the article was published. "They both were in Garmisch to ski when they heard about the appeal," Rebstock says. "They thought that since they were already close by, they would deliver their applications in person." The two IT specialists already had work in Portugal, but they were still attracted by the idea of a job in Schwäbisch Hall.
Rebstock speaks cautiously of "initial successes." Two drivers, a painter and two hotel workers have found jobs so far. But as other applications are processed, many people's hopes will turn to disappointment.
In light of the lack of a major success, the city is downplaying its efforts. "We hadn't counted on such a huge resonance," says a spokesperson. "If we were to do it all over again, we would do it in a more coordinated way."