Germany struggles to find skilled workers

Germany struggles to find skilled workers
Photo: DPA
As Germany's robust economic recovery continues, the country’s companies are finding it increasingly hard to find enough skilled workers. Kyle James reports on the impending labour shortage.

A recent study by the German Chamber of Commerce found that Europe’s largest economy lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. The need is especially acute in the engineering, high-tech and health care sectors.

“If you don’t have the right people, less is produced and in the short and long term that will have a real effect on the country’s economic growth,” said Stefan Hardege, head of the labour market research department at the Chamber of Commerce.

Bernd Völcker, a founder and the marketing director of the Berlin-based web services firm Infopark, has been experiencing the problem first hand. His business has been doing well over the past year and he would like to hire at least ten new employees. But that is proving difficult, and time consuming.

“We can’t fill the open positions that we have quickly, sometimes it takes months,” he said. “We can’t grow as fast as we would like to and in the worst case, it means we have to turn down work that comes our way.”

The German high-tech industry association BITKOM estimates there are about 28,000 unfilled positions in the IT sector, primarily in software development and support. In health care, an increasingly important sector for Germany’s greying society, the situation is worse – some 50,000 additional workers are needed.

The long-term prognosis is not good, especially due to demographic developments. Germany’s birthrate is about 1.4 babies per woman, well under the rate to maintain current population levels.

“When older workers retire and there are fewer young ones to take their place, this problem is just going to get worse,” said Hardege of the Chamber of Commerce.

Much worse, in fact. The Chamber estimates the shortage could grow around 10 percent annually, meaning by 2030 the country could need some 2.7 million skilled workers it doesn’t have.

One way labour experts say Germany can tackle the problem is by recruiting more experts from abroad, but that has proven to be a challenge. A survey and report published in November by Germany’s Federal Institute for Population Research showed that the country was not all that attractive to foreign workers. On a scale of one (attractive) to five (unattractive), Germany scored a middling 2.8.

“We have to change that and get rid of red tape for those who are really going to help our economy. We have to make their start in Germany easier,” said Lars Funk of the German Engineering Association, a group which is especially worried about recent developments. Some 45,000 engineers retire every year while only about 40,000 young people graduate with German engineering degrees.

According to the report, a main problem with attracting skilled immigrants is the language. German is not an international language like English, and is not as popular with foreigners as French is, for example.

The country could also simplify confusing rules around visas and work permits as well as recognize more university degrees from overseas, the report recommended. In addition, a recent undertone of anti-immigrant sentiment hasn’t helped matters. Labour experts say the country needs to be more welcoming all around.

But there are those who have come to Germany who say the country has welcomed them just fine. Cade McCall moved to Leipzig from Santa Barbara, California last fall to work as a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

His integration into the workplace and life in Leipzig has been problem free, he said. According to him, Germany likely hasn’t performed well in surveys because it hasn’t sold itself like it should.

“My guess would be that that’s branding, that Germany isn’t as chic as everything else that showed up higher on the list,” he said.

That raises the issue of whether Germany needs some more aggressive PR, something like the UK’s ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign from the 1990s. It presented the country as fashionable, hip and on the cutting edge of music with the then-popular Britpop movement – a rebirth of “Swinging London.”

What the German equivalent might be is anyone’s guess.

“‘Germany – now it’s funny’?” suggested McCall. “‘Now we have a sense of humour’, something like that.”

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