July 15, 2008 3:00 am
Alexandra Pohl is one of only five women in Germany to hold the coveted "patent", the document delivered after years of training that entitles its holder to command the world's largest vessels as captain.
Yet although she could be steering mighty container ships through exotic sea routes, she spends most of the year travelling the country on behalf of the German shipowners' federation to recruit officers and engineers for a rapidly growing commercial fleet.
"No one calls me captain," she says with a laugh. For her employer, she is more useful on land, addressing schoolchildren and attending job fairs, than at the helm of a ship. That is because shipping has become the latest sector to be hit by the new German disease: a rapidly worsening skills shortage. Shipping is only a small facet of a far bigger problem - one that the government is responding to with a package of measures due to go before the cabinet tomorrow.
Engineers, in particular, are in increasingly short supply and finding them has become a serious bottleneck for the country's large industrial sector. Business federations reckon German companies fail to fill 400,000 positions for university graduates every year, at a cost to them of €20bn ($32bn, £16bn).
These figures are controversial and rough estimates at best. Yet no one is contesting the data for engineering alone, for which solid statistics are plentiful. According to data extrapolated from Federal Labour Agency statistics, the IW economic institute in Cologne estimates there are 75,000 to 95,000 positions for engineers that are not being filled for lack of suitable candidates, up to 30 per cent higher than last year.
Even taking the lower estimate, "we have come up with a €7bn yearly loss for the German economy as a whole due to the shortage of engineering skills", says Oliver Koppel, a labour market expert at the IW institute. The ZEW institute in Mannheim meanwhile estimates that there will be 160,000 vacant positions for engineers by 2014.
Rainer Lattek, plant head of personnel at SMS Demag, a crane manufacturer, says: "We have 400 open positions right now and it is a struggle to fill them. There are many companies competing for a shrinking pool of people. We talk to students at an ever earlier age and offer them internships, even scholarships, as a way to bind them [to us]."
Ms Pohl says shipowners are also "recruiting younger and younger people as 'technical officers' [marine engineers] in positions that frankly would require a lot more experience".
The government has seen the writing on the wall. Tomorrowthe cabinet is expected to endorse a series of measures to open up Germany's closed labour market to foreign graduates in an attempt to tackle what experts predict could become Germany's economic problem number one. Economists and business representatives have welcomed the move, even though they see it as a timid step that will leave many hurdles in place for foreign graduates eager to settle in Germany.
Yet the measures, negotiated between the interior and labour ministries and outlined in an internal document obtained by the Financial Times, are proving controversial. Trade unionists, in particular, see them as further steps towards the creation of a global market for labour and therefore a threat to the country's comparatively high wages.
Today, only graduates who earn more than €86,400 a year can obtain a work permit for Germany. The government's plan would lower this to €64,000. Foreign graduates of German universities would be allowed to look for work in the country, as would high-school students seeking vocational training. Asylum seekers should receive a permanent work permit once they have worked in the same job for two years.
"It will give medium-sized companies new opportunities to secure highly qualified employees outside Germany," says Ludwig Georg Braun, head of the country's federation of chambers of commerce. Yet some economists call it insufficient. Non-EU citizens, for instance, would still be subject to considerable restrictions, such as the requirement for their prospective employers to prove that they cannot find suitable applicants in Germany.
The most criticised aspect of the package is the decision - no more than a footnote in the government's draft - to extend by two years a temporary ban on most nationals from eastern and central member states of the European Union from working in Germany unless they are engineers or highly qualified. The ban will now expire in 2011, the final deadline for old EU member states to lift all labour market barriers against the new members.
"We are certainly facing a serious skills shortage in the future," says Franziska Schreyer, an economist at the IAB. "But right now we have 20,000 unemployed engineers, not to mention the large number of women who leave engineering for other careers every year." Polls of young graduates show entry salaries for engineers have fallen since 2001, suggesting today's skills shortage could perhaps be solved by higher salaries and better working conditions, she says - not by courting cheaper labour.
Whatever their views of the government's package, most economists agree that the skills shortage cannot be solved by migration alone. One problem is German students' lack of interest in engineering. Even though the number of university graduates has increased from 214,000 a year to 254,000 since 1995, engineering graduates have fallen by 10,000 to 39,000. This means there are just enough to fill the 38,000 engineering positions vacated every year as older engineers retire.
"Immigration is clearly a good thing," says Mr Koppel. "We should go much further and open up the labour market to all foreign university graduates. But this can only be a short-term fix. In the longer term, we need to re-equip our entire education system so that it starts producing technicians again. Germany is known as the country of thinkers and poets - but we must become the country of technical experts."
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