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Germany's challenge: Attracting a skilled labor force

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Kai Ryssdal: We talked unemployment a little bit up at the top of the program. The December jobs report comes out Friday morning. We should be so lucky as to have Germany's labor problems. While we're trying to figure out how to replace the 8 million jobs we lost in the Great Recession, the Germans are trying to find enough workers for the jobs they have.

Kyle James reports from Berlin.


Phone ringing, woman answering in German

Kyle James: The phone's been ringing a lot recently at Infopark. The web services company has enjoyed strong growth this year. And it's hiring. There are 10 jobs advertised right now.

But founder and marketing director Bernd Volcker says the company's having a hard time finding the people it needs.

Bernd Volcker: We can't fill the open positions that we have quickly. Sometimes it takes months. So we can't grow as fast as we would like to. And in the worst case, it means we have to turn down work that comes our way.

His company's not alone, not by a long shot. A study by the German Chamber of Commerce found that the country has a shortage of about 400,000 skilled workers. The need is especially acute in engineering, high tech and health care.

Stefan Hardege heads the labor-market department at the chamber of commerce.

Stefan Hardege: If you don't have the right people, less is produced and in the short and long term, that will have a real effect on the country's economic growth.

Germany's birthrate is low, 1.4 babies per woman. That's well under the rate to maintain the current population. That means fewer Germans, and fewer engineers and software developers in the future.

Back at Infopark, tech consultant Adam Musial-Bright explains some of the work he does.

Adam Musial-Bright: And this is fully customizable, so it has basic functionality like different types of images, like...

He's originally from Poland, and is just what business leaders in Germany need. But it's proving a challenge to import a skilled labor force. Lars Funk of the German Engineering Association points to a recent survey. It found that Germany wasn't all that attractive to top workers from other countries.

Lars Funk: We have to change that and get rid of red tape for those who are really going to help our economy. We have to make their start in Germany easier.

That report blamed some of the problem on the German language.

German language educational tape

It's not an international language like English, and -- take it from me -- not all that easy to learn. The country could also simplify confusing permit rules and recognize more college degrees from overseas. And, a recent undertone of anti-immigrant sentiment hasn't helped matters. Labor experts say the country just needs to be more welcoming all around.

Sounds of a party

But some who've come here say Germany's welcomed them just fine. Cabe McCall moved to Leipzig from Santa Barbara three months ago to work in neuroscience. Tonight his institute is having a party, and it's full of plenty of imports. He thinks Germany doesn't perform well in surveys because it hasn't sold itself like it should.

Cabe McCall: My guess would be that that's branding, that Germany just isn't as chic as whatever else that showed up higher on the list.

So maybe Germany needs something like the UK's "Cool Britannia" campaign from the 90s. Although it's hard to think of what the German equivalent would be.

McCall: "Germany, now it's funny," "Now we have a sense of humor," something like that.

In Berlin, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.

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