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Germany: Chancellor Seeks Computer Experts From Other Lands

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's Gerhard Schroeder says he wants to bring thousands of foreign computer experts to Germany on short-term visas to keep the country from falling behind in the technology race. But as correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich, the chancellor is meeting stiff opposition from trade unions and others who argue that computer jobs should go to unemployed Germans.

Munich, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The first wave of foreign computer specialists should begin arriving in Germany by July, if Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has his way.

A spokesman for Schroeder's office told RFE/RL yesterday (Wednesday) that a number of problems remain to be resolved but that the chancellor wants the first foreign specialists to start coming in the early summer.

German computer industry leaders expect many applications from India, which has a thriving computer industry. Romanians, Bulgarians and other Central and East Europeans are also expected to apply.

Computer industry leaders and government officials say the lack of qualified specialists must be remedied immediately if Germany is not to fall hopelessly behind in technical prowess. According to Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn, up to 100,000 specialists are needed. Winfried Hartl, the head of recruiting at the German electronics giant Siemens, says Siemens alone needs 1,000 highly skilled computer specialists right away. He says the specialists cannot be found in Germany.

Schroeder has proposed that 10,000 foreign specialists be brought to Germany in a first wave, with another 10,000 admitted next year if the program works. Siemens recruiting chief Hartl says this is not enough to meet Germany's needs.

"We have 75,000 open positions of which half need to be filled by highly qualified university graduates. We simply do not have them. The 20,000 is much less than what we demanded but it is a good first step."

But the program is not without its detractors. One objection is that these jobs may go to foreigners merely because foreigners are cheaper than German laborers. Many German companies, including Siemens and Deutsche Bank, already send their software tasks electronically to India, where Indians work on them at wages far lower than in Germany.

Opposition Christian Democrats say that the some 40,000 computer specialists among Germany's 4 million unemployed should be trained for the open positions. But industry leaders say most unemployed German computer workers do not have the specific skills needed now to put Germany in the front row of computer technology.

One of the strongest critics is Juergen Ruttgers, a high-ranking official in the opposition Christian Democratic party. He argues that the government should concentrate on educating German children to be computer specialists rather than relying on outsiders. The government response is that, as Ruttgers was minister of education in the previous government, he should be held responsible for the poor level of computer training in Germany.

Dieter Hundt is the president of the Federal Association of German Employers. He says both long-term training and immediate immigration are necessary.

"We must on the one hand, of course, continue and intensify primary and higher education to make people qualified in technical fields. And we must, on the other hand, as a stopgap measure, bring qualified foreign skilled laborers -- and not only in the information technology field -- temporarily to Germany."

Other critics fear that the imported specialists, particularly those from Asia or Eastern Europe, might want to stay in Germany and increase racial tensions. They often cite the case of the Turkish workers who came to Germany in the 1960s to fill "temporary" jobs and then stayed on. Around 2.1 million Turks now live permanently in Germany.

In an effort to defuse these critics, Schroeder proposes that the foreign experts be given short-term visas limited to three years. If necessary, individual visas could be extended for another two years at most. And the specialists would not be allowed to bring their families to Germany.

That model follows the U.S. example. The United States faced the same issue in the late 1990s. Computer industry groups supported allowing more foreign professionals into the country on temporary visas, while unemployed U.S. computer specialists said they should be retrained to fill those jobs.

The situation was more or less resolved in the U.S. when the Commerce Department recommended a combination of training the U.S. labor force while also hiring qualified immigrants on a temporary basis to fill immediate needs. A U.S. law allowing foreign technical experts to obtain six-year work visas has been expanded until 2002. At the same time, visas fees go into a fund to train U.S. workers.

Many Indian specialists and some East Europeans have spent time in the U.S. under the short-term visa program. U.S. officials stress that this is not a "green card," which would allow foreigners to remain in the U.S. permanently. Still, the program continues to be controversial, and the government has commissioned a large study of how to meet computer workforce needs in the coming decade.

Chancellor Schroeder has said he recognizes that Germany must create home-grown computer specialists, and he has extracted a promise from industry to help. Schroeder:

"We have agreed that industry will find 20,000 training places by the year 2003. Some say this can be done by the end of the year 2002 but we will see."

The details of Schroeder's plan for offering short-term contracts are still being worked out. The Interior Ministry says it should be possible to issue short-term visas under current immigration laws.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said yesterday (Wednesday) that the posts could be advertised in foreign countries by May, and possibly earlier. Information about the posts will be available at German embassies.

(Elena Nikleva of the Bulgarian Service and Susan Caskie contributed to this report.)