When Indian programmer Mohan Sahadevan wanted to quit his job at engineering giant Siemens to join a Berlin software company, he was told he would have to leave Germany as his work permit could not be transferred.
The 40-year-old software engineer ultimately was able to make the move without leaving the country, but only after five idle months and much legal wrangling.
“The thing was that when I resigned, my work visa became invalid,” he said, frustrated by the hoops he was forced to jump through to stay.
Germany’s strict rules on employing skilled workers from outside the EU is at odds with the acute shortage of engineers and other highly skilled workers, a problem expected to worsen due partly to the aging population and low birth rates.
“Every time we decide to hire someone from outside the European Union we have to deal with so much bureaucracy, and many hurdles appear along the way,” said Stefan Dahlke, vice president of software engineering at Datango, who hired Mohan.
“It is very time-consuming and sometimes costly,” he added.
Under current German rules, a firm wanting to hire a foreign worker has to first prove it could not find someone suitable in the EU. In addition, non-EU residents are issued a visa only if their German employer guarantees them an annual wage of at least 66,000 euros (US$94,000) — more than double the average annual salary.
The rules are stricter than in most EU states and immigration experts say this is pushing foreign skilled workers to look for employment in more welcoming places, like the UK and Ireland.
In fact, just 691 highly skilled non-EU citizens applied for permanent residency last year, a jarring number given the reality of the German labor market.
The Association of German Engineers (VDI) reported there were more than 76,000 unfilled engineering vacancies in June, up from 30,000 in 2009.
The Federal Labor Office says the shortages have spread to include physicians, pharmacists, information-technology specialists, social workers and other healthcare professions.
A survey by the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) found 32 percent of companies viewed labor shortages as the single greatest risk to their future prosperity — double the 16 percent that expressed that concern a year ago.
“German companies have increasing difficulties in filling open jobs with skilled people,” DIHK president Hans Heinrich Driftmann said by e-mail.
Immigration is a highly sensitive and politically charged issue in Germany, which with more than 10 million immigrants has quietly become home to the world’s third-largest immigrant population after the US and Russia.
Both East and West Germany took in millions of low-skilled “guest workers” in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 3 million-strong Turkish community — the second-largest group of immigrants after ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and former Soviet states — many have struggled to integrate.
German sentiments on immigration were exposed last year after the publication of a book by former central banker and local Berlin political leader Thilo Sarrazin that asserted that families of Turkish and Arab origin sponge off the state and threaten Germany’s indigenous culture.
Right-wing politicians and the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGV) want the government to train unemployed Germans to fill labor shortages and oppose changes to the immigration laws.