Germany is stepping up efforts to attract more migrant workers from outside Europe, as business leaders and politicians warn that the pervasive lack of skilled labour poses a mounting risk to the country’s economy.
A decade of expansion has left the German labour market with record low unemployment and companies struggling to fill 1.36m vacancies. Although economic growth has slowed markedly this year, a survey released on Monday by Germany’s chambers of commerce (DIHK) found that 56 per cent of companies said the lack of skilled labour was the biggest risk to their business.
“Many companies in Germany are looking urgently for skilled workers — even at a time when the economy is weakening,” said Eric Schweitzer, the chamber’s president.
In the construction sector, the share of companies describing the shortfall of employees as their biggest problem was close to 80 per cent, while in healthcare the share was even higher, he added.
The report came ahead of a “skilled labour summit” at the Berlin chancellery, at which politicians, business leaders and unions agreed a series of practical steps to ease the path of foreign workers coming to Germany from outside the EU.
Speaking after the meeting, chancellor Angela Merkel urged her compatriots to show a welcoming face to new workers from abroad. “What is really important is that we are seen in third countries as a country that is open to the world and interested. Because we are not the only ones in the world who are looking for qualified labour. There is a great competition in this area.”
The chancellor had warned over the weekend that Germany had to make a greater effort to attract “sufficient numbers” of workers from outside the EU. “If we don’t, businesses will leave Germany — and we don’t want that,” Ms Merkel said.
Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, said the government’s new approach was evidence of a critical shift in Germany’s attitude towards migration: “We have accepted that we are a country of immigration and we deal with it in a flexible manner.”
Data from the Institute for Employment Research found 1.36m unfilled positions in Germany in the third quarter of 2019, up from 873,000 four years ago.
This year Germany passed an immigration law to help jobseekers from outside the EU find work in the country. Unlike EU citizens, who have the right to settle and work anywhere in the union, workers from countries such as India and Russia often face steep administrative and legal hurdles.
The law, which comes into force in March, will open the entire labour market to non-EU migrant workers, not just specific sectors where the need for staff is especially great. Companies will no longer be required to show that there is no German jobseeker able to take up a role being offered. Migrant workers will be allowed to enter Germany to look for employment even if they have no job offer.
German business leaders have broadly welcomed the law but are concerned that some bottlenecks remain. One particular issue that surfaced at Monday’s summit was the need for rapid visa procedures, especially in countries that are top of the German target list such as Brazil, India and Vietnam.
Hubertus Heil, the German labour minister, told German radio on Monday: “It is the job of companies to look for skilled workers. And we will then blow away the bureaucratic hurdles.”
Mr Heil cited the need for mutual recognition of professional qualifications and language skills as examples, along with the issue of visa procedures.