Photo Gallery: Uphill Battle for Skilled Immigrants
Tepid Welcome Germany Struggles to Lure Skilled Workers
At first glance, immigrating to Germany seemed rather straightforward to Enio Alburez. When the engineer from Guatemala heard last spring that he could acquire a visa to look for work in Germany, he booked a flight to Berlin and went to the German embassy in Guatemala City.
There, Alburez asked for the special visa -- but the embassy staff members merely shrugged their shoulders. They had never heard of the "jobseeker visa," which has existed since August 2012 for non-EU citizens, but promised to look into the matter. A week went by, then another. For six long weeks, Alburez waited in vain for news from the embassy. Then the 25-year-old, who had learned German at the Austrian School in Guatemala, traveled to Germany as a tourist. After all, his flight was booked.
When he arrived in Berlin, he was contacted by the embassy in Guatemala: The jobseeker visa had now been approved, they said, but unfortunately Alburez had to fly back to Guatemala to have it glued into his passport. Without the visa, he says, he had no chance of receiving a residence or work permit in Germany.
"It was pretty crazy that I had to explain to the embassy staff what opportunities existed in Germany," says Alburez. So he flew back to Guatemala City, picked up his jobseeker visa from the German embassy and returned to Berlin. He applied to a number of companies and received an offer from the automotive supplier Continental in Hanover. He rented an apartment and exchanged his visa for a long-term residence permit.
Germany has only just begun to transform itself into an immigration country, and politicians are gradually lowering the obstacles for newcomers. Armed with the jobseeker visa, foreign college graduates can look for work in Germany for half a year -- and anyone who can prove that they've found a position with a gross annual salary of over €46,000 ($63,000) can remain in the country.
In 2012, the governing coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) lowered the limit by €20,000 to prevent wage dumping. The government also passed new employment regulations that made it easier for foreigners without a college degree to work in Germany.
The new grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) intends to continue on this course: The coalition agreement pledges additional offers for immigrants, focusing primarily on improved information and consulting services from government agencies.
According to the OECD, Germany now has one of the most liberal immigration laws for highly qualified candidates in the world, and yet it rarely succeeds in attracting young talented individuals like Alburez from Guatemala.
Lack of Skilled Workers
In 2012, over 1 million people moved to Germany, the largest number of newcomers the country has experienced in many years. But nearly two-thirds of these immigrants came from EU countries. Many of them are fleeing the economic crisis in their home countries. Experts anticipate that this influx will subside as soon as the situation improves in southern Europe. The current immigration of European refugees who are fleeing the crisis won't last, says migration researcher Klaus Bade. He argues that this merely belies the fact that Germany urgently needs to recruit more immigrants from non-EU countries.
In 2012, there were 155,000 vacant positions in Germany for highly skilled workers like technicians, engineers and computer scientists. According to estimates made in 2010 by the Nuremberg-based Institute for Employment Research (IAB), Germany's workforce will decline by 6.5 million people by 2025.
Demographic researchers predict that Germany will only be able to maintain its economic strength if there are 400,000 more immigrants than emigres annually. Between August 2012 and June 2013, though, merely 2,500 highly qualified individuals immigrated to Germany from non-European countries with the help of the EU Blue Card. Only 25,000 foreign workers from non-EU countries settle in Germany every year. In Canada and New Zealand the corresponding per capita immigration rate is roughly 10 times as high.
"We have to get away from the idea that droves of highly qualified workers are just waiting for an opportunity to immigrate to Germany," warned Armin Laschet (CDU), the former integration minister of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in 2011. Despite its enormous economic power and high standard of living, Germany is simply not competitive enough when it comes to recruiting talent from around the world, says the OECD. And the experts point to four main reasons for the country's poor performance.
The first reason is Germany's daunting bureaucracy. If there's one thing that Yvonne Anders doesn't like, it's German forms. The paperwork is nightmarishly complex and requires a wealth of information, with endless pages and extra documents. Sometimes translations are required, sometimes not. In fact, she no longer sends the papers off without consulting an expert. Anders works as the human resources manager for Adidas. She is looking for skilled workers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These days, even a company like Adidas rarely finds new employees in Germany, especially IT experts and designers.
Whenever Adidas is interested in a promising candidate, Anders launches into a struggle with the bureaucracy. Even she has problems keeping on top of all the terms, such as jobseeker visa, limited residence permit or unlimited residence permit. "If this is too complicated for us, how are people from China, Russia or Serbia supposed to deal with it?" she asks.
Employing Specialized Agencies
Many large companies hire specialized agencies to navigate the legal and bureaucratic maze for their foreign employees, because keeping abreast of the latest laws and regulations and maintaining contacts to German authorities would actually cost them more time and money.
Oliver Clapham has run a relocation agency near Frankfurt for a number of years. He handles all of the formalities for his clients, from acquiring visas to renting apartments, but even he is occasionally dismayed with the situation. Clapham says the immigration authorities and employment offices are understaffed, leading to long processing delays for his applications.
"I often wait for months just to get an appointment to have a residence permit issued," he complains. Clapham says that some candidates are forced to enter the country as tourists until they receive resident status -- or they opt to go to another country.
The OECD is urging the German government to promote labor migration. Some experts are calling for a point system to govern immigration, similar to what exists in Canada and Australia. This would make things equally transparent for international students and potential immigrants, and would, for example, spell out the desired criteria on a central website. Points could be awarded for having certain professional qualifications, a university degree or language proficiency -- and anyone who has gathered the requisite number of points can live and work in Germany.
Difficulting Recognizing Qualifications
The second reason for the country's lack of gains lies in its difficulties recognizing foreign qualifications. Germany's Recognition Act, which came into effect in April 2012, was intended to guarantee a transparent process for evaluating foreign professional qualifications. During the first year, some 30,000 people applied to have their degrees evaluated. 10 times as many people could benefit from this legislation, but German Education Minister Johanna Wanka (CDU) says the law nonetheless makes "an important contribution to securing skilled labor."
Integration expert Bettina Englmann sees things differently. "The German government has made a lot of promises, but the results are disappointing," she says. In 2007, Englmann paved the way for new legislation with her "Brain Waste" study. She argues that the law is by no means applicable to all professions, and is not uniformly applied throughout Germany. The federal government is responsible for occupations that require training, such as in trade and industry, while the states are responsible for teachers and engineers. There is still widespread chaos throughout the system.
And even where the law applies, like, for instance, in the health professions, there is a lack of clear guidelines for how degrees could be recognized in Germany, as the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) criticized in a recent report. The SVR also pointed to a lack of administrative personnel.
"For outsiders," the system for the medical professions is "practically inscrutable," the SVR argues. The conservatives and the SPD also see a need for action. The coalition agreement says the potential of immigrants "still remains largely untapped."
The third reason the country has had difficulty recruiting foreign talent is the sluggish implementation of reforms. The "welcoming culture" that German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) fondly refers to has not yet been established in many government agencies. Hardly any of the officials have a good command of English or another foreign language, and immigrants are shuffled back and forth by stone-faced bureaucrats.
Tale of Demoralization
Last June, Martin Zeil (FDP), who was then Bavaria's minister of economic affairs, took part in a panel discussion at the University of Passau titled "Study and Stay in Bavaria." He praised Bavaria's excellent institutions of higher education and the outstanding conditions for foreign students. After Zeil's speech, Carlos García, 27, a student from Venezuela, stood up and nervously took hold of the microphone. He said the authorities treated him as if he were unwanted, adding that they did everything they could to get rid of him.
García had come to Passau 10 years earlier as an exchange student. He said he spent a so-called "voluntary year" working in the community, attended a preparatory university course in Munich, and started studying economics in Passau. He noted that he felt at home in Bavaria and had made friends.
But García said the harassment that he suffered at the hands of immigration authorities had "demoralized" him. His residence permit was extended for only a few months at a time. Otherwise -- at least according to the authorities -- he could have taken advantage of German generosity and tried to work in the country. García said that when he applied for permission to do an internship, he was told that he was in Germany to study, not work.
García sent a letter to the mayor of Passau. He wrote that he dreamed of becoming a German citizen and establishing a company. "For me, the future is here," he wrote. "I would like to be able to move about freely and earn a living." The mayor -- who is a member of the SPD -- responded that he unfortunately could do nothing for García. He said students like him were expected to return to their home countries.
The fourth reason that the country has not attracted more foreign workers is that German companies have been reluctant to recruit them. According to an OECD study, between July 2010 and July 2011 nine out of 10 German companies had vacant positions, but only one in four extended their search for personnel outside of Germany. When it comes to small and medium-sized companies, only between one and two out of 10 considered looking abroad. Many companies feared that it would be difficult, risky and expensive to recruit employees from foreign countries.
"Small and medium-sized companies can't afford this kind of thing," says Volker Steinmaier from the Südwestmetall employers' association in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. He represents companies like manufacturers and small engineering firms that are currently having difficulties filling vacancies for skilled workers. It's far too difficult and costly to look abroad, says Steinmaier. He says that there are "hardly any companies that have the resources" to attend job fairs in foreign countries, build networks with foreign colleges and universities and establish contacts with foreign employment agencies.
Big companies like Allianz have less trouble doing so. The insurance and financial services giant organizes "Welcome Days" at its Munich headquarters. New employees are assigned so-called buddies who help them settle in and get acquainted with the firm. "Companies and politicians have to improve the general conditions for those who can contribute to Germany's competitiveness with their knowledge and expertise," says Werner Zedelius, who is a member of the board at Allianz.
Germany has to learn to woo immigrants. This requires nothing less than instilling a new culture in German society -- in government agencies and among politicians and personnel managers.
Allianz executive Zedelius says this includes marketing Germany's advantages. That "has perhaps not yet been properly" done, he admits. "The German government is acting far too defensively," agrees Christine Langenfeld, the SVR chairwoman. She says the country lacks modern "immigration marketing," and argues that far too little has been done to get the word out about programs that make it easier to work in Germany, like the EU Blue Card. "The reforms belong in the display window," Langenfeld says, "and not under the counter."