Germany's working-age refugees and empty jobs: Why the disconnect?

With one of the lowest birthrates in the world, Germany has much to gain economically from the influx of refugees. It plans to take in up to 1 million this year.

Markus Schreiber/AP
A woman with a baby, saying they are from Syria, arrived with other refugees at the train station of the southern German border town Passau last week after they have been taken off a train by German border police for registration.

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 Bäcker Schlüter bake shop.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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 Vöpel, 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. Vöpel. “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 regulated

For 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 8.50 euros in some circumstances to allow refugees to get a foothold in the workforce, Vopel says. “It’s unrealistic to think that all these immigrants can be absorbed into the job market at that wage,” he says.

Berlin is still in crisis mode and only in the early stages of formulating policy. But growing numbers of Germans realize their country is confronting a significant adjustment that demands new policies.

“We are facing a fundamental change. Our society will be more diverse, which is stressful and sometimes will be painful,” Aydan Özoguz, state minister for integration, said in a white paper released over the weekend. She called for a revolution in German language education, accelerated and expanded job training, and greater involvement in integration issues by German citizens. Ms. Özoguz added that to succeed as an immigrant society “means that not only the people who come to us need to integrate, but also we must change.”  

But a rising if minority chorus of alarmist voices counter that if indeed Germany needs more children and maybe some immigrants, it does not need these ones – meaning the largely Muslim Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and others they fear will change the German character and impoverish the country.

Anti-asylum demonstrations have popped up, and vandalism and torching of refugee centers have shocked the country. The anti-refugee forces say the protests will only grow if Germany remains on the open-door course.

“We need qualified, educated migrants and not what we have arriving by the thousands today,” says Michael Stürzenberger, a national figure in the anti-asylum movement. Describing the refugees entering Germany as “not the best educated, with not the best of values, and 80 percent Muslim,” he says they pose an “existential threat.”

“It’s a big danger for Western democracies if masses of Muslim people come to live here,” he says. “They have a religious ideology that condones violence, their view on government is totally different from our understanding of democracy, and we know they have a totally different view of the rights of women.”

'Can't just bring in foreign children'

The answer to labor and population shortages lies in policies that would encourage citizens of other European Union countries to come to Germany to work, and in tax reform and family assistance programs, Mr. Stürzenberger argues. “We need to encourage Germans to have more children,” he says, “not try to solve a problem by bringing in foreign children.”

To some, such sentiment reflects a fear of the unknown. “Unlike the US, we don’t have a history of successfully integrating foreigners,” says Vopel. 

Many Germans, for example, do not view the tens of thousands of Turks who arrived in the 1960s to help rebuild the country after World War II, or the quarter-million refugees who fled the war in the Balkans in 1992, as German or successfully integrated.

Makki, the Syrian who started out at a German bake shop, says successful integration will require another key ingredient – the efforts of the refugees themselves.

“In one day last week 15,000 refugees arrived in Germany, in just one day,” Makki says. “When you hear that, you realize that it can’t be just up to [Germans]. It depends on us to work hard to make this work.”

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