Fortress Germany Skilled Immigrants? No Thanks

Germany is lagging behind other major industrialized countries in its efforts to attract skilled workers. While other nations see highly qualified immigrants as a benefit, Germany regards them more as a threat -- and is setting the hurdles as high as it can.


Many engineering sectors in Germany are facing skills shortages. But companies face enormous problems if they try to hire foreign specialists.

Many engineering sectors in Germany are facing skills shortages. But companies face enormous problems if they try to hire foreign specialists.

It's only a tiny metal rod, but for Oscar Escalante-Mendieta it symbolizes his entry into the professional world. Escalante-Mendieta, a recent graduate in electrical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe and an employee of Detecon, a Bonn-based telecommunications company, is in Moscow searching for radio antennas for a Russian network provider. Together with coworkers from Germany, India and the United States, he is poring over circuit diagrams and manuals, pleased, as he says, "that there is so much to learn on my first job."

Escalante-Mendieta's entry into professional life wasn't as pleasant an experience for his employer. While the engineer was settling into his new job in Moscow, Detecon's personnel department was embroiled in a bitter tug-of-war with the German immigration authorities. Because their employee of choice had a Mexican passport, officials used every loophole of German immigration law in an attempt to prevent Detecon from hiring him.

The immigration authorities flatly rejected Detecon's first application for permission to hire the Mexican national. Then they presented an alternative candidate and demanded that the company interview him for the position. Only after Detecon managers told officials that their supposed specialist barely understood English and was even unfamiliar with current cellular phone technologies did the immigration agency give in. It took another three-month marathon of negotiations before Escalante-Mendieta was finally approved.

Detecon's managers breathed a sigh of relief. After all, they still had a further 60-odd skilled positions to fill at the time. But Escalante-Mendieta, for his part, could easily have lived with rejection. "Then I would simply have gone someplace else," he says. After graduation, he says, he received "four lucrative offers from different countries."

The Detecon story is not unusual. Ironically, just as the German economy embarks on its strongest boom in years, the country is on the verge of spoiling its own future by making it difficult for German companies to hire foreign nationals. Every other major industrialized country in the world may be competing for a limited supply of highly skilled specialists, but in Germany -- which currently ranks as the world's leading export nation -- political parties are determined to satisfy the growing demand for highly skilled specialists mainly from a shrinking domestic labor supply.

The German government failed to make any significant changes to the status quo at last week's brainstorming meeting in the eastern German town of Meseberg. And while the administration plans to make a few adjustments to the new immigration act, which recently became law after years of heated debate, the changes are minor.

One of the changes is the coalition government's decision to make it slightly easier for Eastern European engineers and foreign university graduates to move to Germany. But, at the same time, the measures were tied to so many conditions and limitations that they will likely attract very few highly qualified workers to Germany in the future. The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) called it merely a "small step in the right direction."

In principle, Berlin's grand coalition is holding fast to a failed immigration policy that has long made experts shake their heads in disbelief. For decades, many of the foreigners who were allowed to immigrate were barely literate in their native language -- let alone German -- and soon became burdens on Germany's social welfare system. At the same time, the government set high hurdles for eminently qualified would-be immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia.

In the international technology race, Germany resembles a sprinter who decides to attach lead weights to his shoes shortly before the start. While other industrialized nations lure highly qualified foreign workers with tax benefits and recruitment incentives, and while tens of thousands of well-educated Germans emigrate each year, the country is doing its best to discourage qualified workers from even attempting to immigrate.

The regulations are so unrealistic that even the country's leading exporters are increasingly running into problems with German immigration law. Tiemo Kracht, the managing director of Kienbaum, an executive search firm that recruits for German and foreign companies worldwide, is convinced that "Germany hasn't heard the starting gun yet."

Jessica Voss, a human resources manager at accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, knows just how poorly Germany's laws conform to the realities of a global economy. Deloitte's German division is attracting more and more clients from abroad and increasing the percentage of its business that it conducts outside Germany. And yet when Voss attempts to hire employees with the necessary language skills or foreign contacts, she often becomes bogged down in the maze of German immigration law.

Voss recently tried to hire a Russian business school graduate who had done postgraduate work in Berlin on a scholarship awarded by the German Academic Exchange Service. After the man had successfully completed an internship lasting several weeks at Deloitte's Berlin office, Voss wanted to hire him for the company's growing Eastern European business.

But German authorities, arguing that the candidate's foreign degree was not comparable with a German master's degree, refused to issue the necessary work permit. Only after months of negotiations with government agencies and lawyers did Voss finally find a way around the bureaucratic nightmare: Deloitte's Moscow office hired the Russian accountant and then transferred him to Germany.

The process left Voss angry and convinced that "anyone who is forced to find these sorts of alternative solutions and spend so much time dealing with bureaucrats will soon hardly be hiring any foreign candidates any more."

Given experiences like these, it isn't surprising that many German companies don't even recruit foreigners -- and that graduates from places like Poland and Romania make a wide berth around the unwelcoming German employment market.

International research shows that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern European university graduates emigrated mainly to the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, where they helped spur economic growth. Qualified professionals occasionally stumbled upon Germany, but only as cheap labor for German farmers.

According to statistics compiled by the Nuremberg-based Federal Employment Agency, only 5,088 foreign specialists were admitted to the country in the first six months of this year. This isn't even sufficient to offset the brain drain of highly qualified German citizens, and is a long way from meeting the demand for specialists in the country's current economic boom. There is a currently a shortage of 20,000 engineers in the heavy machinery manufacturing industry, with a shortage of similar proportions also felt in the information technology sector. According to a recent study prepared for Economics Minister Michael Glos, the loss to the German economy is estimated at €20 billion a year.

This is only the beginning, as an analysis by the Ministry of Education and Research indicates. Be it information technology, physics or chemistry, there has been such a massive decline in the numbers of registered and graduating students in the sciences that the ministry is now reporting "bottlenecks" and "shortages" across the board.


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