There is a labor shortage in Germany. The chaotic conditions at the airports are just one indication of this. Other industries have been complaining about a lack of skilled workers for years. There are antidotes to this. Correctly dosed and used, the problem could be gotten under control.

Craftsmen are not available, the waiting time for a heating specialist is currently four months on average. In the beer gardens, ordering doesn’t take that long, but landlords moan about the fact that they can’t find any staff either. The chaos at the airports due to a lack of staff and angry passengers is currently dominating the headlines every day. There is no question: the labor market has gotten into trouble again. At the moment, however, not because there are too many unemployed, but because there is more work than there are workers.

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In order to rebalance the labor market, which in the current phase means filling more vacancies, there are four options:

In the mid-1950s, when rapid economic growth led to a labor shortage, the Federal Republic had begun to specifically recruit workers from abroad. In 1955 the first recruitment contract was signed with Italy. Agreements with Spain, Greece, Turkey and other countries followed. Most of them are now EU member states and their citizens have the right to work in any EU country without any special regulations. In 1964, the Portuguese Armando Rodrigues de Sá was welcomed as the one millionth guest worker in Germany and presented with a motorcycle. In 1973, when a recruitment ban was imposed as a result of the oil crisis, almost four million foreigners lived in Germany.

Back then, during the boom years, workers were recruited to fill jobs in industrial mass manufacturing, heavy industry and mining that no longer exist today. According to a report by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, these were mainly activities that required only low qualifications. It was only intended to bridge the need for low-skilled workers during the boom period. The recruitment freeze of 1973 then gave foreign workers who did not come from a country in what was then the EEC the choice of either returning or preparing for a longer stay and catching up with their families. At the beginning of the 1990s, immigration had increased again and was even higher than in 1970, the year with the highest influx of guest workers.

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The fall of the Iron Curtain, wars in the former Yugoslavia and the deteriorating situation in the Kurdish-populated part of Turkey caused this development, which led to negative reactions in Germany and even to pogrom-like protests. The discussion flared up again in 2015 when masses of migrants from North Africa came to Europe and Germany. The AFD celebrated its rise here by serving people’s fears of immigrants.

Against this historical background, any debate about more immigrants with different skills is explosive, and the parties avoid a discussion that goes beyond the influx of highly qualified professionals that are needed in the companies. So far, if you can’t show a concrete job offer, you’re not allowed to come. In addition, the Federal Employment Agency must agree.

A residence permit can also be granted on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement: Such regulations exist with Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Employees from these countries can work in Germany for a limited time within the framework of fixed quotas. However, in view of the demographic development and the tense situation in the construction industry, for example, it could happen that this strict line is relaxed. An exception already applies to nursing staff who are supposed to take care of the aging Germans when they can no longer do it themselves.

However, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce also states the prerequisites that must be met in order to be able to employ more women: for example, life-phase-oriented employment. “This is important for young specialists and managers who are starting a family, as well as for older employees who bring their experience to the company. “Plan actively and well in advance with your employees to return to work after parental leave, also actively address women returning to work in job advertisements,” is another tip from the IHK experts, who makes it clear that none of this is standard in the companies up to now .

In 2022, the inventory of the IG Metall sounds like this: “The shortage of skilled workers is increasing again in all professions.” The German Trade Union Confederation is therefore calling for a sustainable strategy for more skilled workers.” A lack of skilled workers has been a much more frequent obstacle to production since the summer of 2021 than before the pandemic, IG Metall notes – and if it were consistent, it should now actually call for a strike to extend working hours. However, she prefers not to do that.

In their place, economists bring the topic back into the political debate. Michael Hüther, Director of the Institute of German Economics in Cologne, recently put it this way at a congress for medium-sized companies in Bavaria: A gap of five million vacancies must be closed by 2030: “The Swiss work two hours more a week than we do”, said Huther. “The Swedes one.” By extending the working time by 30 minutes, a potential of 100 hours per workplace could be created quickly.

In fact, according to the respective official country statistics, it looks like this in Europe: In 2020, full-time employees in this country worked an average of 40.5 hours. This puts Germany just below the EU average, which is 40.7 hours. From a purely statistical point of view, the most hard-working are the Greeks with an average working time of 43.8 hours. At the end of the statistics are the Danes, who had enough after 38.4 hours. Working hours in Germany vary depending on the industry, collective bargaining agreement and employment relationship. Workers and employees generally finish their work day more punctually than the self-employed and executives. Exceptions are allowed at short notice. It can be up to 60 hours a week.

The number of hours worked per week has steadily decreased over the decades and centuries. Around 200 years ago, people worked 82 hours. In 1995, eleven years after the bitter strikes, the 35-hour week prevailed in the printing, metal and electronics industries. In the GDR, the regular five-day working week only came into existence after the fall of the Wall.

But the trend has turned almost unnoticed. So far, this has been quite visible in France, where the gradual introduction of the 35-hour week was part of the election program of the then successful socialist party as early as 1981. However, this was accompanied by ever more generous exceptions, so that in 2008 the French parliament adapted the laws to reality and gave companies the freedom to negotiate the working hours with the workforce, which meant that a general limitation of working hours to 35 hours remained only formal. Emmanuel Macron has made further easing possible since taking office. French media are now talking about the actual end of the 35-hour week in France.

However, when comparing working hours, economists also look at productivity, i.e. how much work people in a country can do on average in a specific time. The Germans are above the average here, Denmark is at the top, which can afford its short working hours, Greece is well below the average, where people consequently work longer in order to achieve the same thing. Productivity increases with the help of machines and digital work processes.

At the federal level, politicians are cautious about the issue. Economics Minister Robert Habeck from the Greens aptly stated in February that there were not enough qualified specialists and that the problem was getting worse due to a lack of young people. When it comes to working time, however, he only thinks publicly about working life. “You should be able to work flexibly longer. That would be a double benefit: if you want, you can contribute your knowledge, your skills and your experience for longer.”

According to a working paper from his office, the federal government will continue to develop its skilled labor strategy. A framework should be created so that employees can work at least up to the standard retirement age and, if they wish, beyond that. The ministry’s paper mentions increasing the volume of work as one of the tasks in the fight against the shortage of skilled workers. The fact that this could also include an extension of the weekly working hours – but the officials are currently still avoiding this.

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The original of this article “One measure hurts us all: what we can do now about the staff shortage” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.