May 6, 2013 1:15 pm

Germany grapples with skilled labour shortage

For six months Heinrich Traublinger did not manage to fill a vacancy at his bakery near Munich. For about the same length of time, Daniel Henares was looking for work after being laid off from the tyre factory where he worked near Barcelona.

Now Mr Henares has begun a new life as a German baker in what amounts to a small step towards solving one of the continent’s most glaring imbalances. While Spain’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the western world, in Germany the problem is the opposite: a dearth of labour in one of the wealthiest and most economically successful parts of Europe.

“It is getting very difficult to find qualified people,” says Mr Traublinger, whose family company employs 150 people besides Mr Henares. “Unemployment is so low – there just aren’t the qualified people on the market. Everyone wants to hold on to the people they have.”

Even amid the eurozone debt crisis, German employers say their “Fachkraeftemangel” – the shortage of skilled labour – is one of their biggest problems as they grapple with the changes that an ageing and shrinking population is bringing to the workforce.

A recent study from the Robert Bosch foundation suggested the workforce could shrink by about 6m, or some 12 per cent, by 2030 without remedial action. In Munich’s underground network, adverts proliferate for training schemes in fields such as engineering, with employers seeking the next generation of workers to keep the German economy humming.

Bringing workers from outside Germany is only a small part of what politicians say must be a range of solutions to the labour shortage, including getting more women into the workforce and keeping older employees in work for longer. But migration is also a solution that chimes with the grim employment situation in other parts of Europe.

Latest figures from Germany’s labour office show that almost 500,000 workers from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are now working in Germany – an increase of 8 per cent over the previous 12 months.

Foreign influx

With labour shortages so acute, Germany must do even more to attract skilled workers, says Dirk Palige, managing director of the ZDH, a national organisation representing skilled trades.

“Sitting and hoping people come is not enough. We have to go actively to people as we have done in Germany,” he says.

The companies that are represented by his organisation find it difficult to compete with big multinationals such as BMW and Siemens to recruit workers, says Mr Palige. Two-thirds say they have recruitment difficulties, with 30,000 unfilled jobs in the past few years.

The care home sector is another facing an acute labour shortage. Daniel Bahr, the federal health minister, last month proposed relaxing rules for bringing in foreign care workers.

Fostering labour mobility in a continent of myriad tax and pension rules, not to mention languages and culture, remains one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of a true single European market. Mr Henares’ move from Spain to Germany took place as part of a scheme supported by the Munich chamber of crafts trades, which is supporting those willing to migrate with paperwork, finding accommodation and even German lessons. It has offered 21 places with funds from Europe and the Bavarian labour ministry.

Katrin Budick, an official at the Munich Handwerk chamber, says: “We don’t want to promote a ‘guest worker’ mentality. We want people to live in Germany long-term, not send them back after six months when they are no longer needed.”

Representatives from other towns around Germany turned up to hear about the Munich scheme at a recent trade fair in the city. And Germany’s federal labour ministry and employment agency are rolling out a nationwide scheme to offer similar incentives, with €139m available for the next three years to help young European workers interested in training and working in Germany.

“We know that the cross-border labour market in Europe is a big challenge,” Dagmar Beer-Kern, a labour ministry official, told the Munich meeting. “This is an experimental programme and we will see how it looks in six months.”

Oliver Abrecht, of the German employment agency, said Germany wanted to avoid a “distortion” of Europe’s labour market. “We don’t want to lure away people who have jobs simply on the basis that we have a labour shortage,” he said.

Mr Traublinger praises Mr Henares’ work, while the Spaniard says the bakery offers a better salary than in Spain and says his new colleagues are being “patient” with his faltering German. After a few weeks in Germany, and even as his wife in Spain was about to give birth to twins, he is optimistic that he has made the right choice.

“I see Spain having very difficult times, Germany seems like a strong country in the medium and long term that will keep the jobs it has,” he says. “I hope I will stay for a long time. My children will have more opportunities growing up in Germany. Spain is going to have a very difficult decade.”

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