BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany, the world’s leading export nation, has long been successful in shipping its state-of-the-art cars and machinery to just about every country.
Now, after importing workers for decades, it has a new entry on its export lists -- jobless Germans.
Plagued by high unemployment due to the turmoil of re-unification and rigid labor laws, Germany has been helping its skilled and less-skilled jobless workers match up with foreign employers searching for manpower.
The country has also been offering financial support to cover moving and transportation costs for the hordes of unemployed Germans in search of jobs across the European Union, and even as far away as Australia and Canada.
As an example of how it works: a newspaper on the Canary island of Fuerteventura was recently filled with adverts placed by Germans hunting for jobs.
“German seeks job in hotels or tourism,” read one. “All relocation and travel costs paid for by German Labour Office.”
Germany had an unemployment rate of 8 percent in February, about one percentage point higher than the Eurozone average: 3.6 million people are without jobs and more than 155,000 Germans emigrate each year.
Many thousands have been helped by the Labour Office’s International Placement Service (ZAV) in Bonn, which offers to some “Mobilitaetshilfe” (mobility assistance) or a “Mobilitaetspraemie” (mobility bonus).
The funding, known as the “Mobi,” helps cover moving and travel costs for jobless Germans and their families. It is discretionary and aimed at those with job prospects abroad, although it is also available for relocations inside Germany.
“The mobility assistance benefits can be used for moves to anywhere in the world,” said Sabine Seidler, spokeswoman for the International Placement Service (ZAV) in Bonn.
“They’re granted on a case-by-case basis and there’s no upper limit on the sum involved. Applicants usually must have a contract and meet certain criteria. The main purpose is to help those who’ve lost their jobs find work as quickly as possible.”
Neither the Federal Labour Office nor the ZAV could quantify the total cost or impact of the scheme because grants are administered by nearly 200 regional offices.
Officials at the European Commission in Brussels and in Bonn said they were unaware any of other EU country offering such help for moves abroad. In Austria, unemployed people can receive a one-off payment of up to 4,632 euros ($7,336) for relocation costs for a job within Austria.
In France a previous government discussed but discarded plans to help cover relocation costs inside France. But in many other countries such as Denmark, where unemployment is low, there is no relocation support of any kind.
In Germany, the assistance is controversial. Economists and industry leaders say paying people to leave a country with a shrinking population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world is a recipe for disaster.
Shortages of skilled labour are now acute in industries such as engineering and carmaking but also loom in sectors such as retail, health care and finance, while “depopulation” has become an explosive issue in some areas, especially the formerly Communist east.
“It’s obviously better if they find work in Germany and pay tax, as well as contribute to the state’s social welfare system,” said Werner Eichhorst, deputy director of labour policy at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn.
“In the short term, emigration takes people off jobless rolls, but in the long term we’re losing workers with skills. It’s usually the best and most flexible who leave. They’re also often at ages where they have children. They’re lost to Germany and obviously their children won’t contribute later either.”
But Deutsche Bank’s chief economist Norbert Walter, who has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the long-term implications of Germany’s demographics, guardedly defended the state aid.
”I‘m in favor of liberal answers to difficult problems,“ Walter said. ”I see nothing wrong with someone in a difficult situation in Germany being helped to find a job elsewhere.
“It’s just a little nudge to help people get back to work,” he added, but noted Germany would ultimately need more workers.
“It’s obvious that we’re going to need a much greater level of immigration into Germany in the years ahead.”
Without immigrants from Turkey and Italy, West Germany’s “economic miracle” of the 1950s and 1960s would not have been possible. But many Germans are now going the other way.
Nico Graewert, 25, found a job as a cook in Switzerland that got him off the jobless rolls in his hometown of Hoyerswerda, east of Berlin. He had 24 hours to pack, collect travel costs from the local Labour Office, and move south.
“I‘m really glad I went through it all,” Graewert told the Lausitzer Rundschau newspaper, which recently reported the local office helped nearly 300 jobless Germans move abroad in the last year. “No matter what happens down the road it’s a lot better to be in Switzerland with a job than to be unemployed in Hoyerswerda.”
Katarina Jaerka left her hometown of Dresden in 2006 for a job in Austria and then Fuerteventura, where she now works as a hotel receptionist.
“It wasn’t possible to find a job in Germany,” said Jaerka, 24, who has a degree in hotel management. “I was surprised how much easier it was abroad. But I hope to go back home someday.”
The Labour Office also spends heavily training jobless Germans to work abroad -- including offering language courses.
One centre in the eastern town of Glauchau offers Dutch and other language courses for Germans preparing to move. It also trains would-be emigrants about different practices abroad.
“Construction work is organized quite a bit differently in the Netherlands and if you don’t know that before going there you’ll have problems,” said Holger Oerter, an instructor at the training centre that works closely with the local Labour Office.
“Masons, carpenters and builders do things differently in Holland. They’re much more specialized. But we also train people for work in Switzerland and other countries.”
The training centre was created in 2001 for two reasons.
“The first aim was to help unemployed people get training and qualifications for jobs abroad and, secondly, it’s a livelihood,” said Oerter. “We need a job too.”
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile and Sara Ledwith