Germany's Working-Age Refugees and Empty Jobs: Why the Disconnect?

By LaFranchi, Howard | The Christian Science Monitor, September 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

Germany's Working-Age Refugees and Empty Jobs: Why the Disconnect?


LaFranchi, Howard, The Christian Science Monitor


Rami Al-Makki has demonstrated a fast-on-your-feet adaptability that economists here say German business and industry desperately need.

Mr. Makki, from war-ravaged Daraa, in southwestern Syria, has settled in the Hamburg suburb of Rellingen and is learning German quickly since his harrowing odyssey last year across the Mediterranean on a cramped boat and up the spine of Europe on a suffocatingly crowded truck. While he had been a CD factory and cement plant manager in Syria, he wasn't too proud to take a job in his new home at a Backer Schluter bake shop.

In March, after receiving asylum, he sent for his wife and two small sons, who were in a refugee camp in Jordan. Now the boys are in school and learning the language and ways of their new home with ease.

"Germany has been very good to me, after such a difficult time, this is the place where I said, 'Now I can live again,' " Makki says. "I want to give something back. If I can find good work and my children learn to live like Germans, I think I can."

As Germany prepares to take in up to 1 million refugees this year and 500,000 annually, the Makki family are exactly the people that many argue the country must welcome - not simply out of the goodness of the national heart, but out of economic and demographic self- interest. And that welcome - especially if it is to last - must be fortified by labor reforms that will make it easier for refugees to fill the many jobs going begging across the country.

"Right now we are welcoming the Syrians and the other refugees, and that's fantastic," says Henning Vopel, director of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. "But it's all led by emotions. What Germany needs is a political and economic process to guide this transition to immigration and give it a legal framework."

With one of the lowest birthrates of any industrialized nation, Germany's population of about 80 million is on track to decline nearly 20 percent by 2060, to about 66 million. Well before that, a boom of retirees and bust of available laborers could jeopardize a generous social welfare system and retirement policies, economists say.

Already, Hamburg lacks enough young, educated workers to fill openings in fields like hospitality, nursing, hair care, and information technology. The federal labor agency counts tens of thousands of unfilled training internships across a variety of fields. Across the country, schools are shuttered for lack of students, and in eastern Germany especially, villages are emptying out.

"We are an aging society, and Germans now don't have many children, so we need more qualified and educated workers to immigrate," says Dr. Vopel. "Some people say the refugees will ruin our economy, but the truth is we need them and the innovative thinking they can bring to have a strong economy and to pay for our way of life."

Germany's problem, Vopel says, is that it lacks an appropriate immigration policy, such as the US system of work visas for foreigners with specialized skills. "The only gate through which to enter the German labor market is asylum," he says. "We need an immigration law that expands the number of gates."

Too regulatedFor some economists, Germany's labor market remains too regulated, despite reforms a decade ago. Most trades are impossible to enter without three years of internship and exams - a barrier that some say will continue to keep arriving refugees out of unfilled job slots.

The government is also going to have to consider adjusting the national minimum wage of 8. …

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