Germany faces a fundamental migration dilemma. Refugees from poor and war-torn countries flock to it as a haven while skilled professionals from outside of the European Union—workers the German economy sorely needs—tend to shun it. Germany’s efforts to make itself more appealing run up against deep-seated cultural affinities, which explains why a new Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report lists it as only the 15th most attractive country for foreign workers—just behind Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland and way behind front-runners New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland.
“Germany is child-friendly!” according to Make It in Germany, a portal funded by Germany’s ministry for migration and refugees, the purpose of which is to attract foreign nationals to Germany. Think tanks forecast that the German labor market could be short as many as 7 million workers by 2035. “We need labor and skilled worker immigration from third countries,” Vanessa Ahuja of the German Federal Employment Agency told German media, referring to non-EU countries. Her office’s goal: 400,000 new professionals a year.
It should be clear, however, that this offer isn’t meant for the often impoverished, usually undereducated refugees fleeing countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. These nationalities constituted most of the nearly 250,000 asylum applicants last year. That’s almost 28 percent more than 2021 (though just a third of those filed during the migration crisis year of 2016.) The newspaper Bild reflects the ire of many ordinary Germans: “They are often without proper education, without a job. But they have the right to welfare support, housing, clothing.” In 2022, every third day saw an attack on the accommodations of refugees.
Indeed, Germany is a prime destination for people fleeing war and destitution: 1.3 million people entered Germany last year—among them 1.1 million people from Ukraine, 140,000 of which have since returned to Ukraine. (In contrast to people living in countries with repressive governments, Ukrainians cannot apply for asylum but can receive temporary protection status.)
Yet, in a dark irony, Germany, a country with a declining native population and anemic labor market, badly needs qualified workers—in some cases, qualified with just a basic knowledge of the German language—to fill around 778,000 vacancies. The list of the sectors crying out for help, according to a foreign ministry portal, is sprawling: raw material extraction, production, and manufacturing; natural sciences; information technology; air transport; and energy technology as well as agriculture; forestry and animal husbandry; horticulture; construction; architecture; and surveying and building technology.
This list doesn’t even include vacancies in education, child care, tourism, gastronomy, and retail. Parents of school-age children in Berlin are furious about the spotty cover of teachers. Every week, school kids’ schedules are perforated with gaps left by missing—some temporarily, some permanently—staff. The Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German foundation, estimates that two-thirds of German school are short teachers. Many hotels, restaurants, and department stores operate with the bare minimum of staff—and often less than that judging by the number of “help wanted” signs in windows and the time it takes to be waited on and served.
In a U-turn from a decade ago or so, Germany has realized that it needs prodigious labor reinforcement from abroad to plug the gaps and has sent out word that they are welcome. And, in fact, there has been a positive response—mostly though from professionals within the EU. Romanians, Poles, Spaniards, Italians, and Bulgarians above all flock to Germany, which the EU’s freedom of movement principle makes relatively easy for a fellow EU citizen.
But since all of the EU 27 members are currently experiencing more deaths than births—Germany’s fertility rate of 1.58 children per woman as of 2021 may be a hair above the EU average of 1.53 that same year, but it is still far from the 2.1 birth rate necessary for a population to grow—the entire continent is waking up to the fact that their economies will require ever more foreign workers as populations age and the downward demographic curve steepens. In Spain and Poland, people are having even fewer babies than Germans. This means that in the near future, Germany will not be so free to draw from the European pot as it does now.
“The Polish labor market needs workers today,” Ulrich Kober, a migration expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German research institute, told Foreign Policy. “I fear that the inner EU labor migration that Germany has benefited from so much is coming quickly to an end. We’ve got to find another solution.”
And the predicament is more dire by the year: The number of Germans at retirement age will rise from 16 million people today to at least 20 million people by the mid-2030s. In the 2040s, the number of people aged 80 or over will increase and with them, their need for long-term care. Meanwhile, the number of working-age people will drop by between 1.6 million and 4.8 million people in the next 15 years, according to the Federal Statistical Office.
In contrast to EU labor migrants, the number of qualified workers from non-EU countries is paltry, even if it has been ticking up. In 2021, it tallied just around 40,000 people—led by professionals from India and followed by the United States, Turkey, and China. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner recently experienced an embarrassing moment in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in Western Africa, when not a single college student in a full auditorium raised a hand when he asked who would consider working in Germany. “Oh, wow! Okay,” Lindner responded.
Canada, with a long history of immigration and streamlined migration processes, obviously doesn’t have this problem. In 2021, Canada welcomed 139,459 new permanent residents through its high-skilled worker programs and more than 645,000 people in the first 10 months of 2022. It intends to accept more than 1.5 million more people by 2025—numbers Germany can only fantasize about.
“Germany radiates a lot of bureaucracy and precious little welcoming culture,” Holger Bonin, director of the Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany, told a German weekly. “But even more problematic is the German language and the unique system of dual vocational training system. The rules for recognizing foreign qualifications in this country are very [not] transparent and take far too long.”
“We have to speed up everything that can be sped up,” German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said this week when in Canada to pick up a few tips on expediting labor migration.
Learning the German language is a daunting hurdle for every person seeking work—skilled or unskilled—in Germany. A 44-year-old Syrian man, Hayyan—who asked just to be referred to by his first name—arrived in Germany with the large refugee wave in 2016. An agricultural engineer with decent English, he’s exactly the kind of qualified professional that Germany needs and wants. But seven years, an intensive German-language course, two advanced training classes, three apprenticeships, and three part-time jobs later, he remains unemployed. Even though he now has a German passport, he’s applying for jobs in the United States and United Arab Emirates as well as in Germany.
“I’m confident with the German that I learned,” Hayyan told FP. “But, sure, my superior is going to have to check it, and that’s work he or she won’t have to do if a German person does my job.” Hayyan said he’s been given short-term jobs that are far below his qualifications and treated poorly by his superiors. “The racism isn’t spoken, but I feel it every day,” he said.
Hayyan’s not alone. Getting foreign workers there is one thing, but keeping them—and spreading good stories around the world about Germany as a good place to work—is another. All four men who Hayyan traveled with to Germany—across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Balkan route—were medical doctors and had their medical degrees in Germany approved. But after receiving German citizenship, two of them left for hospital positions in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and one in Dubai. There, they earn four times their former German wages and feel at home in an Arab culture.
“What if a revolution in Iran was successful and a large part of the Iranians [living in Germany] were to go back?” asked Naika Foroutan, a German social scientist with Iranian roots. “I’m joking a bit, but then Germany would be without dentists.”
German wages may be much higher than in the global south, but compared to many European and North American countries, they’re low—and taxes are high, schools are overcrowded, and the urban housing market is very tight. Linda Teuteberg, a foreign affairs expert for the liberal Free Democratic Party, said Germany’s “top ranking in taxes and other levies discourages people from coming to our country. The skilled workers our country requires … who are highly qualified and speak English go where there is more left over after taxes.”
Since 2020, the Skilled Immigration Act has smoothed the way somewhat for skilled workers by cutting back the bureaucracy required to enter Germany and look for a job as well as for employers to hire a foreign national. A new law will upgrade the 2020 changes, improving educational opportunities, training, and continuing education programs. Immigration requirements will be eased again. Yet another measure will lower the residency period for German citizenship from eight to five years and make dual citizenship easier for foreign nationals living in Germany.
But the shabby treatment endured by Hayyan and his doctor friends—all of them refugees and highly skilled professionals—sheds light on a problem that Germany can’t solve by just passing new laws. Germany needs “technology and talent but also tolerance,” Heil said, obviously impressed by Canada’s multiculturalism. Germans have to rethink the way they understand themselves and Germany—as a country in which immigration is normal and positive, German is spoken with a foreign accent, and foreign nationals and new German citizens are every bit equal to native-born Germans. It’s going to take some time though before Germany becomes Canada.
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