Bye Bye Deutschland More and More Leave Germany Behind

Faced with poor job prospects, high taxes and an intrusive bureaucracy, more and more Germans are choosing to emigrate. Most of those who leave, though, are highly qualified -- which could mean devastating economic consequences.
Von Julia Bonstein, Alexander Jung, Sebastian Matthes und Irina Repke

They are fed up, truly fed up. Fed up with the constant bickering over the costs of wage benefits, social reforms, elimination of subsidies, store closing hours and all the other symbols of a country stuck in bureaucratic and legislative gridlock.

They are tired of living in country where landing a job is like playing the lottery, a country where not even half of citizens live from gainful employment and a country in which even academics in their mid-40s are already considered problem cases when it comes to job placement. In other words, they are fed up with living in a country where all opportunities already seem to be taken: opportunities to succeed in one's career, to own property and to achieve prosperity.

That is why they want to leave -- as fast as they can, in fact -- and move to places where they believe there is hope for a better future. One of those places is the Third World -- India, to be more precise. René Seifert, 35, still raves about Bangalore, India's booming metropolis, where young computer programmers spend their nights crowding into the city's dance clubs and where, during the days, cars share the streets with rickshaws and cows. And where, despite the seeming chaos, every thing has its place. "I'm fascinated by the pulse of Asia, the upbeat prevailing mood and the wealth of opportunities," he raves.

With a few thousand euros in starting capital Seifert, a businessman and former head of entertainment at Internet portal Lycos Europe, founded a company in Bangalore that provides accounting services for mid-sized German companies. He is so enamored of India that he can hardly imagine ever wanting to return to Munich. "Things are really starting to move here," he says.

"Why stay in Cottbus?"

Frank Naumann, a 38-year-old doctor, fled to Austria with his wife because of "miserable working conditions at home." German doctors, he says, "are in demand from North Cape" -- in northern Norway -- "to the Emirates, so why should I have stayed in Cottbus?"

Naumann worked at a hospital in the eastern German city of Cottbus for six years without ever being offered a permanent contract. Because his chances of being promoted to senior physician were so uncertain, Naumann and his wife decided to move to the Salzburg region, where he now has permanent contract as a senior physician at a hospital in the Austrian town of Schwarzach. Back in Cottbus, doctors are working multiple shifts because the hospital suffers from a shortage of qualified personnel.

Almost everyone in Germany these days knows people like Seifert or Naumann -- people who have decided to make a fresh start in the middle of their lives. Saying goodbye is difficult for almost anyone, but at some point the frustrations and the yearning for a new future become too overwhelming to ignore. Rarely have so many Germans decided to leave it all behind -- their houses and properties, parents and aunts, friends and co-workers. According to the German Federal Office of Statistics, 144,815 Germans left the country last year, a jump of almost 25 percent over 2002. At the same time, fewer and fewer Germans are returning from abroad. The most recent figure is 128,052. For the first time in a generation, more Germans are emigrating than returning. And these are only the official figures.

There are probably just as many who move away without bothering to notify officials in their local municipalities. And those who go are no longer only social dropouts, those seeking a tax haven or celebrities. Nowadays doctors are moving to Norway, engineers to the United States and agricultural experts to New Zealand. Germany is becoming a net exporter of people.

The typical emigrant is in his prime, between the ages of 25 and 45, has had a decent education and is already well into his career. "Those who go are often highly motivated and well-educated," says Stefanie Wahl of the Institute of the Economy and Society in Bonn. But immigrants are a different story altogether. "The people who come here are usually poor, unskilled and have little education."

A paucity of immigrants

This is precisely the problem. Not only are more people turning their backs on Germany, but those who go are typically the country's best and brightest. According to a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), hardly any other industrialized nation is losing so many academics to other countries. The percentage of emigrants with doctorates is 10 times as high as it is in the general population. And half of emigrants are younger than 35. "This is a warning sign," Ludwig Georg Braun, the president of the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said recently.

Meanwhile, the number of new immigrants is on the decline, and those who do choose to make Germany their home are often not exactly the kinds of workers companies actively seek out. While countries like Australia and Canada restrict immigration mainly to the kinds of people they can truly use, all it takes for someone to immigrate into Germany is proof that they already have family there or are Eastern Europeans of German descent.

It is failed policy with far-reaching consequences. Hamburg economist Thomas Straubhaar warns of what he calls a "DDR effect" if the country loses those who are the most flexible and open to innovation as happened to former East Germany. "Unless we do something about it," he says, "this country's problems will become more severe than almost anyone can imagine today."

The country's pension system is losing contributors just as vast numbers of baby-boomers are gradually entering retirement. The demographic crisis is getting worse, especially when one considers that deaths outnumbered births by 144,000 in 2005, and that this gap is continuing to widen.

Beyond the social system, the emigration of the country's elites represents a loss to the German economy as well. The government spends untold thousands of euros for the education and training of every biologist, computer scientist or engineer. And then these specialists become frustrated and leave the country.

Of the just under 12,000 students who enter medical school in Germany each year, fewer than 7,000 end up working in hospitals or private practice. Of those who find employment, about half of them find it outside of Germany, according to the Marburg Bund, the trade association of German hospital doctors. Training these 3,000 or so doctors who end up emigrating costs the government about €600 million -- an expense that ultimately benefits patients in Great Britain, Norway and Switzerland.

Fifty-seven thousand Germans in Austria

Ultimately, such an export of intellectual wealth weakens Germany as a site for investment. Many companies already lack specialized workers today, and 16 percent of German companies are unable to fill all their positions because of a lack of qualified candidates. There are about 7,000 unfilled engineering jobs in the machine building industry alone.

"We cannot simply look on as precisely those people emigrate who are valuable, well educated and motivated," says DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, referring to what human resource experts call the "brain drain." Zetsche believes that the solution lies in the government changing its approach to immigration policy. "We should encourage people to immigrate who can help us solve our problems."

What was once an exotic dream has become a realistic option for many planning their lives. Three million Germans already live abroad today. Germany, the world champion when it comes to exports, began by moving its manufacturing facilities overseas, followed by outsourcing its jobs to lower-wage countries. Now its citizens are following suit.

Some are motivated by a yen for adventure in faraway places. Others are simply fed up with German idiosyncrasies, such as the propensity to constantly come up with new rules where none were necessary in the first place. But the most important motivation is often economic, as Germans facing a lack of career opportunities at home seek to build new lives in places where their skills are still in demand. And that is the case in a surprisingly large number of places in the world.

Australia has launched a campaign to recruit trained professionals from abroad, from hairdressers to mining engineers. New Zealand is also actively looking for qualified workers. But most emigrants are hesitant to move so far away; for them starting anew in a neighboring country is daring enough.

More than 57,000 Germans now work in Austria. And Switzerland is becoming increasingly popular: One in 10 emigrants opts for Germany's southern neighbor, and in 2005 Switzerland was the top destination for Germans emigrating abroad. Danish job recruiters even make the trip to job fairs in Germany to recruit sought-after German professionals.

Part II: A lack of drive and a snail's pace

It's a Monday morning at the headquarters of Hamburg's employment agency. Grith Tschorn of Ramsdal, a Danish human resource company, sits in front of her country's red-and-white flag. A stack of employment contracts sits on the table in front of her. Trained welders, she says, are practically guaranteed a job.

"Hi, I'm Grith," she says, greeting a young man who sits down in front of her. "Hello, my name is Ramon Berg," he replies, a bit put off by her overly familiar tone. "What are your skills, Ramon?" she asks bluntly.

Ramon Berg, 29, from the northern German city of Kiel, has a number of skills to offer. He is a trained gas installer and plumber, and he holds a degree in construction engineering. "Really? Construction engineering?" the Danish woman asks. "I know, it's difficult," he responds, imagining his opportunities shrinking by the second. "No, it's incredibly easy," she interrupts, "we are urgently in need of construction engineers." She tells him that she already has a potential employer in mind, and that he'll probably be able to start work in three or four weeks.

That's how quickly lives change.

Germany has lived through, and survived, several waves of emigration in the past. In the mid-19th century, after a number of major famines, the temptations of the New World encouraged hundreds of thousands to make the journey across the Atlantic to America. In the 20th century, Germans fled from recession and inflation, and later from the horrors of the Nazi era. Their numbers included some of the country's greatest intellects, among them physicist Albert Einstein.

Emigration is child's play

Between 1850 and 1939, about 5 million people left Germany through the port of Hamburg alone. Most of those emigrants came from modest backgrounds. They were farmers, maids and day laborers, and they were driven by the hope of a better life somewhere else, or at least a better life for their children. It was this optimism that gave them the courage to take such an enormous gamble.

Emigration in today's borderless world is practically child's play by comparison. Germans seeking a new life in Helsinki, Dublin or Seville don't even need work permits. It's more akin to moving than emigrating.

Today, every major city on earth can be reached within 36 hours. A 10-minute telephone call to just about anywhere in the world usually costs less than a euro, even less using the Internet. Besides, families are no longer as close-knit as they once were, with each generation essentially leading its own life. All of these factors make for a completely new breed of emigrants today.

They include people like media lawyer Rufus Pichler, 35. He lives in San Francisco, works for Morrison & Foerster, one of the world's biggest law firms, and he has also taught at elite Stanford University. This combination would hardly be possible in Germany, says Pichler. "Once you join a law firm in Germany, you can forget about academia."

Pichler was once an academic working at the University of Münster in northern Germany. One day, he says, he became "fed up with structures." His original plan was to spend a year at Stanford and then "expand horizons" from there. He specializes in Internet law.

As it turned out, Stanford was exactly the right place. Pichler quickly made a name for himself, and one day he received the kind of offer from the San Francisco law firm that most people would find difficult to turn down.

It's an experience shared by many Germans who have studied abroad. Since 1990, their numbers have almost doubled, to more than 62,000 today. At first they plan to stay abroad temporarily, but once they start enjoying life in Boston or Barcelona they often end up staying -- indefinitely.

Not just the highly qualified

According to a recent survey, more than half of German university students could imagine living and working abroad. Top-notch researchers are especially fond of the greater freedoms often available in other countries. Two years ago Wolfgang Schönfeld, 50, a native of Berlin, decided to launch a biotech company, Eucodis, in Vienna. He had initially considered opening up shop in Munich, Dresden or Frankfurt, "but there was always a catch in each of those places."

Schönfeld and his team developed a method of combining genes to produce new proteins. When he was looking for a location for his new company, he was put off by the negative mood in Germany. "There is a lack of drive, and everything moves at a snail's pace," he complains.

Things have improved somewhat, says Schönfeld, but he is still pleased that he took the step of moving to Austria. A number of biotech firms have moved their offices to the region, he reports, adding that Vienna exerts "an incredible draw."

But it is not just the highly qualified who are finding the courage to try their luck in another country. More and more average citizens -- many of them in financial straits at home -- are finding the courage to make a fresh start. They iron laundry in hotels in Austria's Southern Tyrol resort region, wait tables in restaurants in Italy and cook dumplings in Austria's Stubai Valley. Nothing is beneath them, and anything is better than collecting unemployment in Germany.

Surprisingly many of these German guest workers are skilled craftsmen -- carpenters and plumbers, butchers and bakers -- and they enjoy an excellent reputation abroad. They are well trained and considered industrious, punctual and experienced.

Frank Pigorsch, 45, from the town Harsefeld near Stade, has been working in construction for 30 years. When his former employer went bankrupt Pigorsch, a master bricklayer, lost his livelihood. He sent out countless job applications, but nothing materialized.

At a job fair he met with recruiters from a Canadian construction company in the booming western province of Alberta, which has major oil reserves. Pigorsch received an offer and has been working in Calgary since March. At one point, he says, he took aside his boss and asked: "Joe, what's the situation? Can I stay?" He could -- and Pigorsch brought his family to Canada -- his wife Birgit and their sons, Aaron and Johannes. "At mid-40, this was my last chance," he says.

Germany's Green Card failure

Canada uses a point system to control immigration as do Australia and New Zealand with Great Britain soon to follow. These countries recruit skilled workers for the long haul. Under the Australian system, an applicant who is younger than 29 receives the highest number of points in the "Age" category. It's rough going, on the other hand, for those over 45.

A 27-year-old master baker with a few years of experience, who is fluent in English, has already completed a training program in Melbourne and can bring along a few thousand euros to boot would stand an excellent chance of being admitted to work in Australia. An applicant with these qualifications could collect up to 140 points, 20 more than he would need to enter the country. Under the Canadian system, an applicant needs 67 of 100 possible points to gain entry.

Germany's former Social Democrat and Green Party coalition, under then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, had planned to introduce a similar system for regulating immigration, based on a proposal drafted by conservative politician Rita Süssmuth. The legislation was already part of the draft document for Germany's new immigration act in 2003. But in light of growing unemployment and cheap populist propaganda ("Kids instead of Indians"), the conservatives abandoned the idea and demanded that the point system be removed from the draft legislation.

Today Germany is experiencing a painful shortage of qualified new workers and rising frustration within its current workforce. The immigration level has dropped to a 20-year low, and even Germany's once-celebrated Green Card -- which aimed at attracting IT experts to the country -- has drawn few foreign workers to the country.

Part III: "Germany has boxed itself in"

In the past year, only 900 highly qualified workers have applied for and been issued a residency permit -- which should come as no surprise given the daunting requirements. Only those who earn more than about €84,000 a year or hold prominent positions in scientific fields are permitted to settle permanently in Germany. Entrepreneurs are required to invest a million euros and create 10 new jobs if they hope to seek their fortunes in Germany. A young American doctor interested in moving to Germany wouldn't stand a chance.

"Germany has boxed itself in," says Klaus Bade, a historian and migration expert from the northern city of Osnabrück. Critical of his country's isolationist strategy, Bade believes that "this will not work in the long run without compromising innovative strength."

Germany, with its aging and shrinking population, is in fact dependent upon qualified immigrants. If only to maintain its current population, it would need 200,000 to 300,000 foreign immigrants each year. But last year only 80,000 came into the country.

Another unmistakable trend is that those countries that actively control immigration are far better off economically. In Canada, Australia and the United States, the economy is growing at a steady clip and faster than in Germany, and jobless rates are also consistently lower in these countries. The widespread fear that immigrants take away jobs from local inhabitants seems unfounded.

A program initiated by the Central Council of Jews in Germany is also unlikely to encourage the country's lawmakers to enact modern immigration law. The organization recently introduced a point system for Jewish immigration. Under the system, younger Jews with university degrees and strong German language skills will be given preference for residency permits. Could this be a model for the national government? Under no circumstances, say officials at the interior ministry, who insist that there will be no paradigm shift in Germany's immigration policy.

Not so perfect as they had imagined

And so instead of intelligently controlling immigration, Germany continues to erect barriers. Highly skilled foreign workers will continue to avoid Germany and, conversely, the country's young elites will venture out into the world.

And yet for many their new lives are not always as rosy as they had expected. They paint an idealized picture of their new home and are all-too-often shocked to discover, upon closer inspection, that things aren't nearly as perfect as they had imagined.

For example, who actually knows that Austria assesses a higher maximum tax than Germany? Or that workers in Great Britain don't receive nearly as much of their salary should they fall ill? And who is familiar with the fine print that requires higher-earning workers to pay far more into the Swiss social security fund, or that a day-care spot in Zürich can cost upwards of 100 francs a day? And does anyone know that employees in Canada are not entitled to their 14 days of vacation until they have worked for a minimum period of time? For most German emigrants, the rude awakening doesn't happen until they are already abroad.

Many emigrants must also admit to themselves that although they are entering a new chapter in their lives, they themselves have not changed, nor have all their weaknesses and peculiarities. Finding a job in New Zealand, for example, is not so easy after all when one doesn't speak English well. Besides, not everyone can cope with the laid-back mañana mentality in the more southern latitudes. So many things are different, even if the differences may only be minor.

For example, Julia Arneth, 33, discovered that train schedules are unreliable in Great Britain. In February, Hamburg native Arneth moved to London, where she now works as an architect. "I never had anything that was really solid in Germany," she says. But now she is truly appreciative of the advantages of Germany's reasonably reliable public transportation system.

When she got a toothache after her first few weeks in London but was unable to get an appointment with a dentist, Arneth realized that there are some things she does miss. "We are really quite well off in Germany." Arneth is young and she takes a laid-back approach to Britain's idiosyncrasies. But the older an emigrant is, the more difficult a time he will have adjusting to his new environment. That's one rule of thumb. Another is that the farther away the destination, the more difficult it is to become acclimated -- until at some point emigrants begin to feel homesick.

Some want to come back

Germans are increasingly calling hotlines when they discover that living abroad isn't quite what they expected and desperately want to return home. A man who recently called a Protestant hotline for German emigrants in Hamburg said that when his plans to establish a company abroad failed, he was forced to work on a plantation to scrape together the money to fly himself and his family back to Germany.

Others toy with the idea of returning out of conviction, not economic necessity. Academics, in particular, often spend only a limited time in their self-imposed exiles and, after a few years abroad, return to Germany to continue their careers. And when they do, they bring along knowledge and experience. Indeed, the "brain drain" can even be desirable if, at some point, it works in reverse and former emigrants return home with their skills and expertise enriched by the experience abroad.

However, the move back to Germany is often more difficult than expected. Halvard Bönig, 39, a pediatrician specializing in hematology, would move back to Germany in a heartbeat. In his job at a university in Seattle, he investigates more effective methods of bone marrow transplantation. But it would be a step back for Bönig to return to Germany, where very few university hospitals offer chairs in experimental research, and where the few positions that are available are generally filled internally.

Bönig has been working in Seattle since 2002 and believes that conditions there are ideal for his field of research. "If someone has a good idea here, he writes a proposal and stands a good chance of getting the necessary funding," he says. But, at the bottom of his heart, Bönig wants to go home. The Americans he has met are too materialistic for his taste, and he even feels a bit uneasy about the idea of helping boost America's status in the world of academic research with his efforts. "I would rather do what I'm doing here back in Germany."

But employers back in Germany are not exactly knocking at Bönig's door. The Germans have apparently not yet realized that the entire world is competing for the best minds, says Thomas Bauer, a labor economist from the central German city of Essen. Germany, says Bauer, is by no means especially appealing to potential talent. The tax burden is too high, earnings are too low and social pressure to keep up with the better-paid professionals is too high. "This is a real turn-off, especially for the highly qualified," says Bauer, who believes that this causes "tremendous damage" to Germany's image as a place to live and work.

A great deal at stake

There is a great deal at stake. The word gets around quickly at home when qualified people emigrate to other countries and are successful there. This encourages others to emulate them. Motivated by the success of the pioneers, they too decide to take the plunge, pack their bags and find the one country on earth where their dreams can become reality. Ultimately, what begins as a trickle becomes a wave.

Klaus Dittmers, 34, a geologist from the northern city of Bremerhaven, reports that he was greeted with open arms in Oslo when he began working for a supplier to the oil industry in the Norwegian capital in April. "The Norwegians say to themselves: 'We need these people.'"

Dittmers was living off of unemployment benefits until April, when he decided that he could no longer stomach being idle. The oil exploration industry is booming in Norway, and geologists are in demand. Dittmers made the decision that is now changing his life.

He says that he can easily imagine staying in Norway. Dittmers is learning the language in a course paid for by the government. He is even considering buying a house somewhere between the country's fjords and mountains. "I like the country more and more every day."

Another German lost.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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