The New Guest Workers A German Dream for Crisis Refugees 

A new generation of highly qualified immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe is seeking a future in Germany. Young, well-educated and multilingual, they are precisely what the German economy needs to ensure success in the future. The country has its work cut out if it wants these "godsends" to stay.


Half a century after her grandfather took the train from Seville, Spain, to Germany, Carolina López, 28, bought a ticket on a budget airline to Berlin. It was the dismal situation in Spain that prompted her to make the move in the late summer of 2012. The Spanish economy is reeling, and one in four Spaniards is unemployed. Joblessness is especially rampant among young people. López went to Germany looking for work and, most of all, a future.

It was a similarly distressed situation at home that prompted her grandfather to go to Germany in 1961, because he couldn't make enough money in Spain to feed his family.

When López talks about her grandfather, though, she still thinks of more differences than similarities. The Germany with which she is familiar from his stories no longer exists. The only German her grandfather Juan remembers is the foreman at the Continental tire factory in Korbach, who was constantly shouting at him. Juan, whose goal was to make money quickly, returned to Spain as fast as he could.

Carolina López is indistinguishable from other young women in Berlin. She wears a loose shirt over her skinny jeans, and skateboard shoes on her feet. She laughs readily and often, and she takes life seriously, but not too seriously. López lived in a shared apartment in Berlin for half a year when she studied marketing there in 2009. Berlin seemed free-spirited and international to her, says López, and more modern than Spanish cities. Now she's back, and this time she wants to live and work in Berlin, and even make it her home.

A new generation of immigrants is coming to Germany: Europe's crisis refugees. They are young, well-educated and multilingual. Many feel that their prospects at home disappeared when the European financial system began to falter, followed by the collapse of domestic labor markets in a number of countries. They are now going to Germany, just as their grandparents did a half-century ago, in search of a new future.

In the 1960s, guest workers from Southern Europe were the first large immigrant group to move to West Germany to find work. Now their grandchildren are following suit, forming the next major wave of immigrants coming to Germany for jobs. Like their elders, they are in Germany to find jobs and opportunities that their native countries cannot provide.

Elite Immigrants

This time, members of the new wave of immigrants are working in university laboratories rather than on assembly lines. Instead of doing the work that others won't, they are moving into corner offices, becoming senior physicians and designing products for others to assemble. They have better educations and are more self-confident than previous immigrant generations, and for this reason see themselves as neither guests nor workers. Instead, they feel that they are European citizens and take it for granted that they belong anywhere in Europe, and that they will leave again if they find that they like it better someplace else. They constitute an elite that is now immigrating and changing society's image of immigrants.

Immigrants who came to Germany in the past were significantly less qualified than those who chose other countries as their new homes. Now, for the first time in postwar German history, almost half of new arrivals have college degrees or a form of higher education, and they are coming in big numbers, the largest since the 1990s. There were more than a half-million in the first half of 2012 alone.

Once here, they are encountering a society that is slowly realizing that immigrants don't threaten prosperity in Germany, but in fact preserve it. "The new quality of immigration is a godsend," says Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen. "It helps our country, making it younger, more creative and more international. Everyone benefits. The young people benefit, because they are able to get started in their careers, and so does our society, because professionals are filling open positions." These are unusual words for a politician with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. A little over a decade ago, one CDU member was famously quoted suggesting Germans should have children rather than allow in immigrants from India to fill tech jobs. But now, even the CDU is recognizing that the country has to change with its immigrants if it hopes to preserve its position as one of the world's top economies, whose wealth is primarily derived from the minds of its citizens.

This wealth would surely dwindle without the new immigrants. As the population ages, a shrinking workforce must support a growing number of retirees. Even if more women and older people were to work full-time in the next decade, the workforce still wouldn't be large enough to keep the economy running successfully, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Demographers make a simple calculation: Germany can only preserve its economic strength if immigration exceeds emigration by 400,000 people each year. This would have to continue for several years. Otherwise, as the OECD warns, the working population will shrink more dramatically in Germany than in any other industrialized country.

A Struggle to Find Qualified Workers

The first members of the baby-boomer generation, the children of Germany's Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, are now entering retirement. The country will lack about 5.5 million skilled workers by 2025. Companies in Germany's booming regions are already feeling the shortage today. According to a poll by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, three out of four owners of small-to-midsized businesses say that they are having trouble finding qualified workers. One in three has already had to turn down contracts because of labor shortages, reports the Federal Association of Small and Mid-Sized Businesses.

Not long ago, politicians and journalists decided that Germany was not an immigration country, and that German society couldn't handle any additional immigration. Immigrants were treated like a plague, a threat or at least a burden. The main goal of immigration policy was to prevent immigration.

It was successful. In 2008 and 2009, more people turned their backs on Germany than chose to go there, turning it into a country of emigration. According to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the think tank aligned with the multinational German media giant, academics and business executives were especially prone to leave the country.

There has never been a culture of attracting people to Germany, inviting them and making it as easy as possible for them to feel at home there. Now demographics and the shortage of workers are forcing the Germans to overcome their suspicions and actually woo immigrants. Instead of asking immigrants "When are you leaving?" Germans should be saying: "Please stay!"

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