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Germany: Government Struggles With Visas For Tech Workers

Up to 20,000 technically skilled foreigners could have German visas by July if German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has his way. Schroeder hopes the foreign experts will help German industry, banking, medicine, and science catch up with the United States. But as Roland Eggleston reports from Munich, the government faces opposition -- some of it xenophobic and some merely bureaucratic.

Munich, 11 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's business and industrial leaders say the nation has neglected computer education for many years and lags far behind the United States and other countries in high technology know-how. Some steps are now being taken to improve education, but in the meantime, the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wants to bring thousands of foreign specialists to Germany on three-year contracts to fill the gap.

Like other countries, Germany has tens of thousands of computer technicians. In fact, 32,000 of them are unemployed. But industry, banks and business do not need men and women who can run or repair existing programs. They need the specialists with that extra flair who can develop programs to satisfy new needs. Apparently, the neglect of computer education means there are very few of these in Germany.

Initially, the government and industry believed that the visa regulations would require just a few changes, easily made. Instead, the proposal has run into strong opposition. Some politicians argue that Germans could be trained quickly to do the work. Others say each work permit should be granted only after an exhaustive search turns up no qualified German. And still others play on xenophobic feelings, arguing that Germany will be overrun by immigrants from India, which has many highly trained computer experts.

Reports of the pending changes to German law have already sparked interest among computer workers in Eastern Europe. But because of the complications, it is uncertain when the regulations enabling companies to hire large numbers of high-tech computer specialists will be approved.

Cornelia Dascalu is a Romanian computer technician. She says she is interested in a three-year contract to work in Germany but she cannot find out what qualifications she needs to apply.

"It's frustrating. We have heard that Germany wants high-tech computer specialists in almost every field. But no one at the embassy or elsewhere can say what qualifications are needed, where the jobs are available, or what is needed to get a work permit."

Many people have already applied to the German government agency responsible for work permits (Zentralstelle fuer Arbeitsvermittlung). That office says that as of last Friday, it had received more than 700 inquiries. Most came from Russia, the Baltic states, Romania and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. There were even several from the United States. To the surprise of the Bonn agency, only seven came from India.

Although many German companies outsource much of their computer work to India, a large flow of Indians into Germany under the new rules may be unlikely because of a perceived rise in hostility toward non-white immigrants. One politician (Juergen Ruttgers, a Christian Democrat) based his local election campaign on the slogan "Kinder statt Inder," which means "children instead of Indians" should be trained for computer jobs. He changed the slogan to the less pithy "education instead of immigration" after people protested that the original slogan was racist.

Partly because of this hostility, Indian experts already working in Germany say they would prefer to work in the United States. Ajjit Nambissan, an Indian engineer who worked for two years in the German city of Hamelin, told a television interviewer that Germany's reputation for coldness toward foreigners and its highly regulated way of life make it unattractive to Indians.

In his words: "If there are two offers, one from Germany and one from California, almost everyone would choose the United States. There are no language problems in the U.S. and there is less suspicion of foreigners." In Silicon Valley in California, Indians own more than 750 software companies and hold leading positions in others.

Besides opposition from anti-immigrant voices, Chancellor Schroeder has also faced bureaucratic obstruction to his plan from within his own government. His labor minister, Walter Riester, was instructed to draw up simple rules to make it easy for foreign experts to work in Germany. Instead, Riester produced what one scornful commentator described as "typical bureaucratic spaghetti."

Under Riester's proposal, no foreign specialist would be given a visa for a job until an investigation determined that the local labor pool could not fill the job. That stipulation could delay visas for months. And the foreign specialists themselves would have to meet German qualifications, including a degree from a recognized university. That requirement is not necessarily relevant to the rapidly changing computer field.

Some government members have pointed out that the world's best-known computer innovator -- Microsoft chief Bill Gates -- never completed a university education.

The Labor Ministry is now revising the visa regulations, and a government spokesman told RFE/RL that final regulations should be ready by the end of next month (May).

German embassies and business agencies around the world will then be able to tell applicants how to go about getting a computer job in Germany.