Labour migration: Germany is open to graduates but immigration is difficult for medium-skilled workers


04/01/2013 - Germany is one of the OECD countries with the lowest barriers to immigration for high-skilled workers. However, long-term labour migration is low in comparison with other countries. As the OECD report Recruiting immigrant workers: Germany points out, the number of immigrant workers from outside the EU and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) is 25,000 a year, or around 0.02 percent of the population. The number of immigrant workers in Australia, Denmark, Canada and the United Kingdom is five to ten times higher.

According to the report, presented today by Yves Leterme, Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD, and Federal Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen, German employers still seldom recruit workers from outside Germany. Even companies that expect to face a labour shortage in the future rarely consider the possibility. This could become a problem for the country, as Yves Leterme emphasised at the presentation of the study in Berlin: "Germany's prosperity depends to a considerable extent on whether it manages to remain competitive despite its ageing population". It will become difficult to cope with the projected labour shortage without an appropriate immigration strategy. (Read the full speech)

Reasons for not having recruited from abroad
(as a % of all employers who had unfilled vacancies but did not hire from abroad)

Note: Multiple answers were possible. ‌Source: OECD-DIHK Employer Survey.

The study reckons that German employers' reluctance to hire foreign workers is due, amongst other things, to the lack of transparency and poor reputation of the German application system. And yet the system is comparatively open: unlike other countries, Germany imposes no annual limit on the number of high-skilled immigrants. The time taken to process applications is short and the procedure itself is inexpensive. Applicants for high-skilled occupations are rarely turned down. International university-level graduates also have comparatively generous access to the German labour market, though this avenue should be promoted more actively.


If the German immigration system is nevertheless perceived both at home and abroad as restrictive and difficult to access, it is not least because it comes across as a "recruitment ban with exceptions". In the OECD's view, it would be expedient to alter the perspective and allow labour migration under clearly defined conditions. The system would also be more transparent if it were made possible to submit applications and track their status online.


Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often find it particularly difficult to recruit qualified candidates in other countries, even though they suffer labour shortages more frequently than large firms and, unlike them, have no recourse to intra-corporate international transfers in order to recruit staff. For that reason, the report recommends giving employers, especially SMEs, more support in recruiting foreign personnel when they are unable to meet their labour needs on the domestic market.

Another aspect not to be underestimated is the scale of the obstacle to labour migration that the German language presents. For many companies, a good knowledge of German is the most important criterion for employment. "The immigration system in its current form does not yet take sufficient account of the importance of the German language on the labour market", said Yves Leterme. He advocated promoting the teaching of German in the countries with the largest pools of potential migrant workers, for example by offering targeted language courses for specific occupations in cooperation with employers. Language learning could also be promoted more strongly among foreign students in German higher education.


While the German immigration system is generous for graduate applicants, immigration is much more difficult in occupations for which no university-level degree is required. However, that is precisely where the lack of workers in Germany is relatively acute. SMEs expect an even greater shortage of medium-skilled in comparison to high-skilled workers in the future. At present, however, non-EU citizens have little chance of getting medium-skilled jobs in Germany. The report therefore recommends opening up new possibilities for immigration in this area.

 For further information, please contact Jonathan Chaloff (, +33 145 24 1849) or Thomas Liebig (, +33 145 24 90 68).


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