Until last summer Patricia Schulze was used to waking up to the drab multistory buildings of her native Berlin. But last July she moved to the small Irish town of Ennis (pop. 18,000), and the country's lush rolling hills now greet her every morning during the 30-minute commute to work. After a year on the dole and some 200 futile job applications in Berlin, the vivacious 25-year-old was so frustrated that she decided to look for employment outside Germany. "There simply was no alternative," Schulze says. Now she's a tele-agent at a call center in Shannon, where she was recently promoted to management assistant. "Since I've got work, I feel I'm worth something," she says. "My life is ordered again, so I feel much better here than I did at home."
In the 1960s and 1970s, Gastarbeiter (guest workers) poured into Germany to fill the menial jobs the Germans themselves didn't want. Now the trend is reversed, as Schulze and other Germans leave their homeland in search of work. In 2002, German labor offices arranged for more than 3,300 skilled workers to start jobs elsewhere in Europe, almost a 9% increase over 2000. Private employment agencies report a surge in interest, too. Over the past 12 months worldwidejobs.de, one of Germany's leading online placement services, registered a 20% jump in page views on its international Internet pages. "The mood is really bad," says Therese Dietrich, head of Berlin's Europa-Job-Center. "People just want to get out."
Don't expect this trend to die off anytime soon. "People's willingness to move abroad is going to increase further," says Jürgen Goecke, director of the Bonn-based Central Job Placement Agency, "because the situation in the labor market, where unemployment is currently at 10.4% and at a staggering 18.6% in the eastern states, is not likely to change soon." Goecke expects the most popular destinations will be the Netherlands (where the construction industry is in need of skilled workers) and Scandinavia (where medical personnel are needed), as well as Spain, Austria and Switzerland.
Even among Germans who do have jobs, the atmosphere of pessimism and insecurity is driving people away. Berlin nurse Michael Günther was so "thoroughly disappointed by the government" and the "declining standards" of the country's financially ailing health care system that he decided to move where "taking care of the sick is still being done the way it should be." Last August, the 38-year-old, his wife Frauke, 40, and their twin sons Marek and Nils, 6, left Berlin to take up a well-paid, 35-hour-per-week job at a home for the elderly in the small Norwegian coastal town of Molde (pop. 24,000), three hours west of Trondheim. "I did not feel as if things would change for the better at home," Günther says. He's now "happy to have time" for his patients again despite working shorter hours than in Berlin, where 45 hours a week is common.
For Günther, adapting to his new working environment meant slowing down from the "mad pace" he was used to at his old, understaffed hospital. "I was respectfully told to take it easy," he remembers. "And that was O.K."
Shedding old habits is, in fact, one of the main challenges the new German émigrés face. "People need to learn to forget about the way things were done at home," argues Birgit Krone, the head of the Baltic Training Center, which organizes language courses and job-coaching for unemployed Germans who want to apply for jobs in Scandinavia or the Netherlands. "They should be open to the corporate culture in the countries they move to," she advises, "because they will be expected to adapt."
While the exodus of German workers hasn't yet reached critical mass, it is a legitimate cause for concern. "People have lost hope that there'll be a change for the better at home," says Dietrich. And since those who leave are mostly young, motivated and qualified just the kind of people the country needs to retain if recovery is ever to take root the skills gap seems likely to get even worse. Neither Günther nor Schulze are planning to move back to Germany. "I've become the person I've always wanted to be," says Schulze. "Why leave?"