Tepid Welcome Germany Struggles to Lure Skilled Workers

Germany must look abroad to make up for its shortage of highly skilled workers. But a series of obstacles, including daunting bureaucracy, stand in the way of foreign specialists looking to relocate.

Christian Burkert/ DER SPIEGEL

By and

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.

Immigration Policies

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.

Daunting Bureaucracy

"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.

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Kamran Z. 12/12/2013
I find this article to be so true. But there's one thing which it fails to mention. German companies have many unfulfilled positions but they don't tend to fill those positions with the best candidate they can find out of the ones interviewed. They're always waiting for that Mr./Ms. Perfect to come along. They don't take the best candidate out of the ones who come for the interview and then train him/her for the criteria he/she couldn't fulfill for the job. For instance a "specialization course". The companies could sign binding contracts with these people so they have to stay with that company for many years. Trust me, as a foreign student here in Germany, I can tell you most of us would be willing to do that. On another note, I can totally identify with Mr. Garcia and his complaints. Germany is such a nice country with the majority of people being very open-minded. But you really have to fight the system to stay here and work. Even if you're already here.
kcrocker112 12/12/2013
2. optional
Germany has far too many rules and regulations on everything. When I looked into hunting, while stationed there, the things you have to go through is just ridiculous. No one is going to that much trouble to hunt game. Just money lost to the government. Their problem, not mine.
ucantava 12/13/2013
I also had same problems. I first went to Germany as an engineer than get fired from the job before i got the proper visa. Later I applied for other vacancies around Germany but i got very opposing answers from the HRs. Nobody exactly knows what is going on when they employ a non-EU citizen. I went to Auslanderbehorde and they told me I have to apply for engineering jobs only. I finally got an internship offer from a start-up firm in Berlin- that is like my life goal- than was told by HR that I can't get a work permit as an intern because I already have a major(!); I talked with Auslanderbehorde and officers told me I need to go back home and apply again from the embassy.No single company will wait/struggle for me for 2 months to get a work permit- this stuff works way too slow in Germany. And I talked with engineering agencies and they said they can't hire non-EU citizens( it is disappointing since lot of engineers work as contractors at this time globally). Also yes, they don't speak English at Immigration offices! I was lucky to have a friend to translate- but not everyone does! I admire Germany a lot, and will keep on struggling for the work permit; but buroucracy is getting on nerves even though I am a qualified engineer speaking 3 languages.
M_Osgood 12/13/2013
4. Your making some wrong assumptions kcrocker
The point of a hunting license is MUCH different in Germany than the US. In the US we have VAST tracts of land that are just about overrun with game and we use a hunting license to basically be the "yes I certify that I understand the applicable hunting laws and will abide by them" document. In Germany they have a land mass of little larger than Montana and almost a third of the population of the CONUS living in it. They dont have an abundance of game here and what they do have is not govt regulated but HUNTER regulated. The govt basically just audits the hunters, they dont really get involved in how the hunters do things. Hunters have to buy the hunting lease rights for any area of land they control but that also means they have to manage all game inside of that lease. The leases cost a LOT of money, and the hunters usually make that up by selling the game to local restaurants and butchers. Thats why they will "give" you the trophy, but you still have to buy the meat from your kill if you want it. Which is the main reason I dont bother hunting here if Im going to have to pay for the meat anyway.
spon-facebook-597589854 12/13/2013
5. Where's easy?
Germany is not especially difficult to work in. It just seems that way to those who expect it to be simpler. France is no walk over.
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