Sour German economy sends young workers packing

Andreas Sammereier never dreamed it could be so easy to get a job.

The 34-year-old electrical technician had been laid off, joining the ranks of the more than 10 percent unemployed in Germany.

But one hour after showing up - unannounced - at a company that presses CDs and DVDs and having an impromptu interview, he walked out with an offer for a job he'll be starting next month.

The catch: The job, working for Dex Audio Pty. Ltd., is in Australia.

Germany's new wave

Mr. Sammereier is part of what observers in Germany are calling a new wave of emigration.

The most recent numbers available, from Germany's central office of statistics, show that close to 110,000 Germans left the country in 2001.

Based on the number of people coming to them for advice, however, the Raphaelswerk, an organization associated with the Catholic Church that offers practical advice and counseling to people considering emigration, says that numbers are skyrocketing and estimates that the figures for 2002 will be twice as high. Peter Thul, author of an emigration how-to book that will be published this month, predicts that the numbers will double again in 2003.

These emigrants, says Martina Luedecke, a counselor with Raphaels-werk in the western German city of Essen, are mostly young, well-educated professionals frustrated with the lack of opportunity in their homeland.

"I meet more and more young people who have lost their belief in Germany," says Ms. Luedecke. "It seems very clear that this new wave of people heading out of Germany is a result of the current economic situation. Not all of them, of course, but a significant number of them just don't see a future here anymore."

Luedecke could be describing a number of European countries. France, too, is witnessing a growing rate of emigration, with the percentage of French living overseas rising 30 percent between 1998 and 2002, according to France's Office des Migrations Internationales. The reasons include France's old-guard business culture, high taxation, and youth employment - 21 percent for those under 25. Young professionals are heading to Canada, the United States and other European Union countries. Italy is also seeing an increase in emigration, experts say.

Hard times

In Germany, newspapers and newscasts are continually filled with depressing economic news. With jobless numbers rising toward 5 million, 2003 economic growth rate predictions lowered to a "prerecession" rate of 0.3 percent, and government plans for reducing social security and healthcare benefits, the mood in Germany is decidedly gloomy.

Sammereier's professional life took a downturn when the firm where he had worked for two years, a manufacturer of CD and DVD production equipment, closed its doors in September of last year. Since then, he has been drawing unemployment and searching for a new job - with little luck.

"Here in Germany, everything that has to do with electronics and technical jobs is completely dead," he says. "I have really looked all over, but everywhere one hears the same thing. Companies are happy if they are able to provide work for those people they do have on the payroll. There are no jobs available."

Even the much-touted "green card" program - launched in 2000 to bring high-tech experts to Germany - has fallen on hard times. Of 20,000 work permits made available through the program last year, only 3,500 have been used. The program - which will not be renewed after it expires July 31 - has little purpose to serve. Many smaller high-tech companies have gone bankrupt, and larger ones are laying off workers.

Previous departures

Emigration from Germany is nothing new. There have been several large waves of Germans leaving the country - most notably in 1873 following a severe Berlin stock market crash and depression. Following Hitler's rise to power, there was a large exodus of professionals, academics, and liberal thinking Germans, among them many Jews.

While experts note that the current outflow is nowhere near comparable to previous waves, they say it is troubling because of the youth and comparatively high level of education among those leaving. The exodus also further compounds the problem of Germany's already low birthrate and rapidly aging population.

It isn't just high-tech industries that are affected.

Stefan Linnhoff, a lawyer hoping finally to get a start in his career, left for the US in May after winning the green-card lottery. After years of second-rate jobs and poorly paid internships in Germany, Mr. Linnhoff is now working as a graduate assistant in the business school at Berry College in Rome, Ga., where he plans to earn a master's degree in business administration. "Having undergone a long, sound education," he says, "one at least expects to be given a chance to prove oneself. I have no problem starting on the bottom rung of the ladder or working diligently when times are hard. But where is the long-term perspective? In my case, I am 33; I couldn't wait any longer."

Greener pastures

Teachers are fleeing the underfunded German school system for Switzerland. Scientists are heading to North America for the attractive grant money on offer. Engineers are heading for the Netherlands. Norway is actively recruiting doctors and nurses in Germany, and Ireland is trolling for customer-relations specialists.

According to Raphaelwerk, however, the US remains the most popular destination aside from the easier-to-reach countries of the European Union, with more than 1 in 10 of all those considering leaving Germany hoping to land in America.

While many of those who leave Germany end up returning later, says Luedecke, the majority never look back.

For Sammereier, who hails from the small town of Traunreuth, east of Munich, the possibility that he will never live in Germany again loomed large as he deliberated over moving to Melbourne.

"It is, actually, a pretty big decision," he says. "I think that after I have been down in Australia for a couple of years I will have built up a life for myself, and I think that the possibility that I will come back to Germany is very small - and especially when one looks at the economic situation in Germany. It has been like this for almost 10 years, Sammereier says, "and it isn't going to get better so quickly."

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