by Katja Hoyer
Tuesday, 31
August 2021
Dispatch
10:08

In Germany, nobody wants to talk about the workers

Politicians are staying silent on the crisis in the labour market
by Katja Hoyer
Pre-Covid, around a million Germans emigrated every year. Credit: Getty

Covid lockdowns have upended the global workforce. According to some studies, nearly half of the world’s workers considered a career change and/or quitting their current job over the next year. In Europe, Britain has had the second highest rate of job-leavers with 4.7% of the workforce having left their positions in the wake of lockdowns, topped only by Germany’s 6%. Why are these numbers so high?

Unfortunately, the problem is nothing new. Germany has complained about a shortage of skilled labour for years, a problem now compounded by Covid. And yet it does not seem to accept that there is something amiss with the experience it offers its workers.

Confronted with the fact that Germany is currently estimated to lack around 270,000 qualified workers across different industries, the head of the federal agency that manages job centres across Germany has called for around 400,000 immigrants per year to be admitted into the country rather than wondering what it would take to get existing workers back into their jobs. Given how careful other politicians have been to declare that ‘there will not be another 2015’, referring to the year in which Germany admitted over 2 million people into the country, it is unlikely that a future government would be willing to go down this route.

Perhaps businesses that successfully retain staff can provide some answers. For a number of years now Porsche has ranked among the best German employers. The company scores highly in every category from salary to work culture, from working environment to job satisfaction. One of my friends from university has worked there since we both graduated. He was trained from scratch, specialising in developing cabling systems for the front seats in the Porsche Cayenne, and has since steadily progressed on their career scheme. He earns a good salary, enjoys working with his team and feels appreciated. Importantly, there is a ‘Porsche’ identity. So it’s no surprise that employment at the car company grew in 2020 (as it does most years).

But most German businesses have long bemoaned a lack of skilled labour. While in 2010, only 16% percent of employers saw it as a serious risk to their businesses, this number has risen to over half. But recent studies have also shown that the majority of German workers feel that they are close to being burnt out. They cite time pressure, emotional stress, working additional hours and a bad work culture as reasons. One quarter say that having to be available all the time is the biggest problem. Given that for those under 23, the figure for unhappiness in the job rises to 60%, the problem has become a systemic issue.

Yet, life satisfaction, happiness and a healthy work-life balance seem strangely absent from the campaign trail. On Sunday, a TV debate between the candidates to succeed Merkel largely centred around tax reforms and whether there could be a coalition with the far-Left party Die Linke. Why did worker unhappiness fail to get a single mention?

Sooner or later the government will have to wake up to the scale of the problem. Pre-Covid, around a million people emigrated every year, with Switzerland, Austria, the US and the UK being the top four destinations, according to government statistics.

In light of these figures, it’s astonishing how little German politicians seem to care about their voter’s quality of life. Although this was somewhat understandable all the while Merkel’s longevity guaranteed electoral victory for her party without giving much room to the others, now that the field is wide open and the election very close, it is baffling. Whoever succeeds Merkel in the autumn will sooner or later have to address the Great Resignation. It is more than a Covid-induced economic problem.

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Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
1 year ago

Where do the employers think that 200,000 skilled workers can be sourced from? Germany already is in the EU, with millions of workers. If they need to attract people to Germany, skilled workers that is, then they need to make work more pleasant or pay more.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

Mass immigration denudes other countries of their vigorous youngsters and is a Ponzi scheme- workers grow old then need even more service workers und so weite…

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Interesting that 3 of the top 4 emigration destinations for Germans are outside the EU.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

How are the million Muslims Merkel brought in working out with this issue?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

Given that for those under 23, the figure for unhappiness in the job rises to 60%, the problem has become a systemic issue.
Oh shame. I hated my job on and off throughout my life and certainly hated it a lot before age 25.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

I have never had a job I did not hate, excepting quite a few years I spent living rough on the road, and they wore me down as they were tedious and very hard – but I did not dislike them in the same way as I have disliked my jobs. Now I seem to sit here on the computer in the middle of the day instead of working – I could do as much work as I wished, and at a decent pay, but so dislike it I seem unable to force myself as I can get by with just a minimum.

I do feel it is a waste to not be working. I build and repair houses, and so my work adds to the general well being of society – and I make money which is good for me – But I just really dislike construction…I guess I am one of those skilled tradesman who have mostly left the employed rolls, like the article above, as I do not have to work, although I should, but just do a couple hours here and there lately….

I guess there are a great many of us mid 60s skilled guys who have dropped out of working properly – 60s is really still prime of ones working ability in trades as we have the skills, and are fit enough to keep working hard – but just run out of will-power steam once necessity stops driving us as the work is not enjoyable to me. I guess this is the problem with easy times, the workers are not so motivated once they are OK.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I hear you brother but a big part of the work dissatisfaction has been the amount of bureaucratic rubbish that seems to accompany ANY job these days – together with the health and safety and the corporate nastiness that is common. I am unemployable because I refuse to put up with all that frustrating stupidity – life is too short at 63 !!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

One explanation is that politicians know that any discussion about “workers” will rapidly lead to a discussion on immigration levels, which politicians are too frightened to debate openly and honestly.
Its not made any easier by Germany being signed-up to the EU free movement policy … or that openly questioning this EU policy may seriously hamper the chances of a politician getting a seat on “the gravy train” in future.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Barton
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

It’s also possibly further complicated by the fact that training people costs money – which leads to higher costs – and inevitably inflation – another German taboo.

Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Given the pathetic pension people get in the U.K. and the awareness of massive numbers leeching off taxpayers and mass immigration doing just that, many are losing the desire to flog themselves to benefit idlers from whatever source.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

This is a very interesting article. I didn’t know Germany had a labor problem. I thought they had technical colleges that taught a useful trade to people who didn’t want to go to university. And I didn’t know a million Germans emigrated each year.
Globalization is ultimately a race to the bottom. Everyone competes with everyone else and whoever makes the cheapest widget wins. There is no place left for ‘quality of life’. Yet that’s what people really want, and they want a sense of belonging like the Porsche worker who has a Porsche ‘identity’ and presumably a sense of pride in his company and work.
Here in the US those of us who work in the private sector know we are ‘at will’ employees. We can be fired for almost any reason according to the business needs of our employer. The day of employee loyalty is long gone. We’re all independent contractors in fact if not on paper. One more reason, in my opinion, to push back on globalization. Cheapest isn’t always best.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

I am quite familiar with Germany but not its education system. Why isn’t the education system there structured or amended in such a way that it produces graduates that the domestic economy actually needs? Is that something that could be addressed?
The author mentions a friend that works for Porsche who was “trained from scratch”. So some companies are willing to invest and train and mould newcomers into a form that is beneficial to them. Is the problem that too few companies take this attitude and think they can appoint a newbie, say “go” and expect perfect results straight away without doing the dirty work of training (the sloppy approach taken by many firms in Austria)? Or is it a supply-side problem that they can’t get the right candidates in the first place?
I think one of the biggest problems in Germany in terms of getting specialist workers (who are well educated, well-trained and thus come with the corresponding price tag) is tax. Germany is a high tax country and, for high earners who are attractive and sought after on other markets (US, UK), the choice will often fall on the side of the country where they take home more, post-tax.
Another problem, which is partially homemade and partially the EU: over-regulation. Germany is so highly regulated, innovation is stifled before it even gets off the ground. The best and brightest will take their brains and ideas and aim for Silicon Valley or somewhere else where they have more freedom (and will get more handsomely rewarded for it). Exhibit A in this argument: the Tesla factory in Grünheide.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I’d be a bit wary of setting up a child’s education simply to assist businesses. If you go too far in one direction then the economic needs of the country change you’ll end up with large numbers of school leavers lacking the basics but well educated in subjects that are of no use.
To me school should focus on subjects every job needs such as English and Maths, and give rounded education elsewhere. The training of specific skills needed by industry should be taught by that industry, seeing as they’re the ones who will benefit from it. It’s not the taxpayers job to train staff for you, if you run a business that needs skilled workers then put your hands in your pocket and train them, rather than standing there with your hand out expecting others to do it.
Too many at the top seem to assume they can privatise the profit and socialise the costs

Last edited 1 year ago by Billy Bob
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It does not have to be a binary choice of one or another. In Austria (where I live), there are schools which kids go to as of about age 14 where they study the basic stuff, but then have an emphasis on technology, or fashion design, or other vocational skills. As far as I’m aware, only the kids that go to the “Gymnasium” (that’s a kind of grammar school thing, nothing to do with a sports hall) can go on to university, because that’s how you get the entrance ticket, i.e. the Matura (or “Abitur” in Germany), the school leaving exams. Apprenticeships are also still a thing here, whereas in Britain, too much emphasis has been put on university degrees while apprenticeships more or less dropped off the radar.You don’t have to make the education establishment a slave to certain sectors or businesses, but you can introduce more variety into it to produce graduates with more specialised skills suited to their own competences. The companies then have to take that raw talent and invest in making it work for their purposes.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Sue Blanchard
Sue Blanchard
1 year ago

I was struck by 1 paragraph

Sooner or later the government will have to wake up to the scale of the problem. Pre-Covid, around a million people emigrated every year, with Switzerland, Austria, the US and the UK being the top four destinations, according to government statistics.

Memo to all: it is worse in the UK and USA. Here in the USA we marvel that our UK colleagues take 2 weeks vacation. Is that possible? Consecutively?! Importing labor, initially willing to offset/accept dysfunctional work/life balance only delays the inevitable question. What is enough? What is too much?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Sue Blanchard

A Tiny home in a pretty place , part time work and forget about having kids

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Sue Blanchard

The UK gets 4 weeks annual leave I believe

Chris Bredge
Chris Bredge
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

From UK government website:
Almost all workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday a year (known as statutory leave entitlement or annual leave).
This includes:

  • agency workers
  • workers with irregular hours
  • workers on zero-hours contracts

An employer can include bank holidays as part of statutory annual leave.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Bredge

4 weeks plus bank holidays sounds about right, cheers for the exact entitlement