by Katja Hoyer
Tuesday, 31
August 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

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