Posted on April 1, 2023

Skilled Migrants Aren’t Interested in Germany

Paul Hockenos, Foreign Policy, March 22, 2023

Germany faces a fundamental migration dilemma. Refugees from poor and war-torn countries flock to it as a haven while skilled professionals from outside of the European Union—workers the German economy sorely needs—tend to shun it. Germany’s efforts to make itself more appealing run up against deep-seated cultural affinities, which explains why a new Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report lists it as only the 15th most attractive country for foreign workers—just behind Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland and way behind front-runners New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland.

“Germany is child-friendly!” according to Make It in Germany, a portal funded by Germany’s ministry for migration and refugees, the purpose of which is to attract foreign nationals to Germany. Think tanks forecast that the German labor market could be short as many as 7 million workers by 2035. “We need labor and skilled worker immigration from third countries,” Vanessa Ahuja of the German Federal Employment Agency told German media, referring to non-EU countries. Her office’s goal: 400,000 new professionals a year.

It should be clear, however, that this offer isn’t meant for the often impoverished, usually undereducated refugees fleeing countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. These nationalities constituted most of the nearly 250,000 asylum applicants last year. That’s almost 28 percent more than 2021 (though just a third of those filed during the migration crisis year of 2016.) The newspaper Bild reflects the ire of many ordinary Germans: “They are often without proper education, without a job. But they have the right to welfare support, housing, clothing.” In 2022, every third day saw an attack on the accommodations of refugees.

Indeed, Germany is a prime destination for people fleeing war and destitution: 1.3 million people entered Germany last year—among them 1.1 million people from Ukraine, 140,000 of which have since returned to Ukraine. (In contrast to people living in countries with repressive governments, Ukrainians cannot apply for asylum but can receive temporary protection status.)

Yet, in a dark irony, Germany, a country with a declining native population and anemic labor market, badly needs qualified workers—in some cases, qualified with just a basic knowledge of the German language—to fill around 778,000 vacanciesThe list of the sectors crying out for help, according to a foreign ministry portal, is sprawling: raw material extraction, production, and manufacturing; natural sciences; information technology; air transport; and energy technology as well as agriculture; forestry and animal husbandry; horticulture; construction; architecture; and surveying and building technology.

This list doesn’t even include vacancies in education, child care, tourism, gastronomy, and retail. {snip} The Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German foundation, estimates that two-thirds of German school are short teachers. {snip}

In a U-turn from a decade ago or so, Germany has realized that it needs prodigious labor reinforcement from abroad to plug the gaps and has sent out word that they are welcome. And, in fact, there has been a positive response—mostly though from professionals within the EU. Romanians, Poles, Spaniards, Italians, and Bulgarians above all flock to Germany, which the EU’s freedom of movement principle makes relatively easy for a fellow EU citizen.

But since all of the EU 27 members are currently experiencing more deaths than births—Germany’s fertility rate of 1.58 children per woman as of 2021 may be a hair above the EU average of 1.53 that same year, but it is still far from the 2.1 birth rate necessary for a population to grow—the entire continent is waking up to the fact that their economies will require ever more foreign workers as populations age and the downward demographic curve steepens. {snip}

“The Polish labor market needs workers today,” Ulrich Kober, a migration expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German research institute, told Foreign Policy. “I fear that the inner EU labor migration that Germany has benefited from so much is coming quickly to an end. We’ve got to find another solution.”


In contrast to EU labor migrants, the number of qualified workers from non-EU countries is paltry, even if it has been ticking up. In 2021, it tallied just around 40,000 people—led by professionals from India and followed by the United States, Turkey, and China. {snip}


“Germany radiates a lot of bureaucracy and precious little welcoming culture,” Holger Bonin, director of the Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany, told a German weekly. “But even more problematic is the German language and the unique system of dual vocational training system. The rules for recognizing foreign qualifications in this country are very [not] transparent and take far too long.”


German wages may be much higher than in the global south, but compared to many European and North American countries, they’re low—and taxes are high, schools are overcrowded, and the urban housing market is very tight. {snip}