Fears about Germany’s shortage of skilled labor may finally be trumping opposition to migrants. Hubertus Heil, the country’s labor minister, plans a new law to attract skilled migration, arguing that the lack of qualified workers, coupled with demographic change, will soon hamper economic growth.
So far, Germany has muddled through with a lengthy, complicated law on immigration – running to 107 paragraphs – that has done nothing to mitigate the decline in the number of skilled workers available for companies. Currently, only workers who hold a blue card, the European Union’s immigration scheme, have relatively straightforward access to work. Anyone else is mired in a bureaucratic jungle.
Applicants to work here have to prove they have a concrete job offer and a relatively high wage. Mr. Heil in an interview said he plans to make it much easier for qualified people to come and work, arguing that Germany’s booming economy could otherwise be in danger. His measures include recognizing foreign qualifications faster so that for example someone with a German language certificate under their belt and a skill could come to the country and spend six months having their qualification recognized and searching for work.
Such changes are long overdue, though Germany has gradually been easing its immigration laws which used to be even more draconian, confining newcomers to the status of guest workers: the Turks, Greeks and Italians who built up Germany after the war.
Berlin eventually lifted the bureaucratic regulation that it was necessary to ascertain whether a German could do a job before a foreigner was allowed. That has helped internationalize the country’s workforce and enabled the country to benefit from Greeks, Italians and Spanish people seeking work abroad during the euro crisis.
But more is needed and fast, with 1.2 million jobs open. Companies have complained for years that they cannot find the mechanics, technicians and managers they need, hoping immigration could help.
Mr. Hubertus is mulling changes. Known as unpretentious and competent, the new labor minister finally has a brief after being passed over for senior posts time and again in past governments. A trained political scientist, Social Democrat and union member, Mr. Heil said he is committed to finding practical solutions and ready to move forward.
Alongside liberalizing immigration law, Mr. Heil told Handelsblatt he wants to make schools more focused on work, strengthen provision of Germany’s dual education system, and provide more opportunities to retrain. At the same time, he wants to improve conditions in some areas of work, such as care for the elderly.
Some conservative politicians have been anxious about an immigration law, but Mr. Heil was sanguine. Talks are underway between the parties, he told Handelsblatt. The outlines of a law should be ready by the end of the summer, and he has agreed with the coalition committee that the law needs to be passed by the cabinet by year end.
Mr. Heil emphasized that he was planning a law to bring in skilled workers rather than to burden the welfare system. Now, he faces a slew of practical questions, such as whether a person qualified for a post already must be able to speak German before they can be employed; must applicants already apply to have their qualifications recognized from abroad, and does Germany have a recruitment method to attract workers from abroad? If it sounds like a lot of questions, it is. But Mr. Hubertus said he was happy at least to have broken through the conservatives’ opposition to asking them.
Germany may get a little more globalized, but with its population otherwise shrinking, it’s not a moment too soon. The country’s healthcare system already relies on the support of people, often women, from Eastern Europe. Other industries likewise rely on migrants and some fear that the skilled workers from Italy, Greece and Spain who came during the financial crisis will return home when their economies improve.
It’s a problem the government has ignored for too long. And given Germany is competing for skilled workers with countries such as Canada or the United States, there are broader social questions that might make qualified workers hesitate before coming to Europe’s largest economy. Concerns range from learning the language to the popularity of a right-wing populist party.
While Mr. Hubertus is willing to hack away at the bureaucracy that stands in the way of qualified employees, he will need to be bold. Beyond qualified applicants, he should also pave the way for young workers and those skilled in trades (but not yet qualified) to come and work in Germany too. Otherwise, he will fail to fully address the damage that stems from that growing shortage of labor.
Frank Specht covers labor for Handelsblatt and Gregor Waschinski is a political correspondent. Allison Williams adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com