Headhunting in the Euro Crisis German Provinces Struggle to Lure Skilled Workers

Provincial Germany has many booming regions that are suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. Now, companies are hoping to benefit from the euro crisis by attracting personnel from Southern Europe. But many young people prefer to go to hip Berlin, despite the lack of jobs there. The provinces, it seems, are just too boring.

The potential pillars of the German economy arrived on Ryanair flight FR 5406 from Madrid, which landed on time at Eindhoven Airport in the southern Netherlands. Then, in pouring rain, they traveled by minibus to the northwestern German town of Papenburg. Upon arrival, they learned that northern Germany and southern Spain are very different places, and not just in terms of climate.

When the 15 young men and women from Murcia and Albacete in southeastern Spain completed short, introductory internships in German companies in May, they also found out what people in northern Germany do in their free time. Together with local business owners and politicians, they went on bike trips between the villages of Sögel and Haselünne, and they even attended a tractor-pulling contest on a field in nearby Harpendorf.

The hosts did their best to show the young Southern Europeans a good time, as part of an effort to convince them to begin vocational training programs in the northern German regions of Emsland and East Frisia. The economy in the region along the A 31 autobahn, known locally as the Friesenspiess, has been growing for years.

Metal-processing businesses and construction contractors have many orders, and the companies need more workers. "We can't find enough personnel here, so we're trying to convince young Spaniards and Portuguese to come to our region to live and work," says Dirk Lüerssen, managing director of Ems-Axis Growth Region, an economic development initiative. Lüerssen began his search in Murcia and Albacete, where one in three people is unemployed.

Creating a Welcoming Culture

Other German regions are also courting young people from the European Union's crisis-ridden countries. Companies are looking for engineers and other graduates, as well as bricklayers, electricians, welders and caregivers. "In fact, almost all industries, especially small and mid-sized companies, are desperate for new employees and trainees," says Norbert Czerwinski, a human resource development expert in the southwestern city of Mannheim. Unless countermeasures are taken, the Rhine-Neckar region of southwestern Germany could see a shortfall of about 35,000 skilled workers by the end of 2013. Workers from Southern Europe are in demand in booming towns like Villingen-Schwenningen and Schwäbisch Hall. Unfortunately, these are place names that mean almost nothing to people in Spain and Portugal.

To raise awareness of the labor shortage, German industry representatives and politicians have given talks at schools and universities in Barcelona and the northern Portuguese city of Porto, invited journalists from Portugal on exploratory trips to little-known German regions, and taken out ads in Greek newspapers to tout the benefits of living and working in smaller German cities and rural areas. The Confederation of German Employer Associations (BDA) even published a guideline for business owners on the subject of creating a "welcoming culture," while municipalities have studied ways to integrate the new arrivals from the south.

"Because of our activities abroad, people have often accused us in recent weeks of putting too little effort into providing training positions and jobs to Germans," says Dirk Lüerssen. "But that's not true." His organization advertised jobs at trade shows in the northern port city of Bremerhaven and other cities with high unemployment, but with little success. People under 25, says Lüerssen, are "extremely inflexible." Many, he says, are unwilling to move even relatively short distances, especially if it involves relocating to rural areas.

'It Takes Time'

This has prompted businesses to look abroad, despite the language barriers. Daniel Marín, 19, was one of the 15 Spaniards who traveled to the Emsland region in the spring for an internship. Ten of the young adults were offered a full training position, and five, including Daniel, accepted. In his native Murcia, 50 percent of all employable people under 25 are out of work.

Now the young man is 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) from home, standing on a hydraulic ramp at Paus, a company in the town of Emsbüren that makes construction and mining machinery. Under the company's training program, he will become a mechatronics technician within three-and-a-half years.

Daniel, who admits to feeling a little homesick "in the evenings," is having trouble understanding something his training instructor is trying to explain to him. "Press there," says the instructor. "Red button." Daniel took a crash course in German in April and now attends classes at an adult education center. But he apparently hasn't learned the words "red button" yet.

The instructor climbs onto the ramp, smiles at his trainee and presses the button himself. "It takes time," he says, "and besides, German is a pretty difficult language."

Language Barriers

The language barrier still deters many Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese from embarking on careers in Germany. Although the Goethe Institute reports a rise in attendance at its German courses, English is significantly more popular among Southern Europeans.

The International Placement Services (ZAV) of the German Federal Employment Agency has seen a noticeable increase in immigration  from the crisis-ridden countries of the EU, and yet far more people have come to Germany from Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries.

In May, the number of Spaniards, Greeks, Portuguese and Italians working in Germany increased by about 28,000, a rise of about 6.5 percent, to roughly half a million. Meanwhile, Eastern European workers, who have been permitted to accept jobs throughout the EU without restrictions since 2011, have seen their numbers in Germany go up by 94,000 (36 percent) in the same time period.

Major German companies listed on the DAX-30 blue-chip index, like BASF, Deutsche Bank, Bayer, Lufthansa and Daimler AG, concur that they have not received significantly more job applications from Southern Europe within the last year. Berlin, on the other hand, attracts more Southern Europeans, says ZAV Director Monika Varnhagen, but unfortunately there are far fewer jobs in the German capital than in smaller cities and rural areas.

Persuasive Powers

For example, Manuel Wagner, a private placement officer, says he could find jobs for "busloads" of well-trained workers in Calw, a town in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. He is trying to bring together Spaniards from Alicante with local German companies. Unfortunately, he explains, many Spaniards willing to emigrate would rather move to hip Berlin to work as bartenders or moonlight on construction sites.

The German Confederation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH), which represents the interests of skilled tradespeople such as builders and electricians, even got in touch with Spanish church congregations, hoping they would put in a good word for the Emsland region and other booming districts and cities.

The Rhine-Neckar region is also pinning its hopes on the persuasive powers of Spaniards. When a delegation recently traveled to Barcelona to recruit new workers, it included expatriate Spaniards who had moved to Germany for jobs many years ago. One of them is Miguel Angel Herce, chairman of the Mannheim Spanish Cultural Society.

"If you want to attract Spaniards, you can't just talk about income opportunities and crisis-proof jobs," says Herce. "The quality of life is also important." Spaniards, he explains, live life at a completely different pace than Germans. For instance, says Herce, their evenings don't start until 9 p.m., and many are unhappy if there is nothing to do after that.

Too Boring

This was precisely the problem in Düren, a town near Aachen in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Local companies had invited Spanish trainees, including a group from Seville, to complete training programs in the area. The employers were enthusiastic about the trainees, including Javier Saintmartin, 26.

But when he completed the training program, Saintmartin, like his fellow Spaniards, turned down the job he was offered as an automobile mechanic. "The coworkers are all very nice," he wrote in his farewell note. But, he added, in Düren people ate dinner at 6 p.m., and there was almost nothing going on after 8 o'clock.

Under those circumstances, he preferred to stay in Seville. He is now working as a garbage collector there.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan