People crossing a street at a cross-walk, viewed from above.

Skilled worker migration to Germany is growing

The inflow of refugees has dominated migration to Germany in recent years. However, current data shows that since 2017, immigrants from other EU member states once again outnumber the rest. In addition, the number of skilled workers from non-EU countries arriving in Germany – though still moderate – is growing.

Whereas the years 2015 and 2016 were marked by strong refugee migration, our analysis of current data from Germany's Central Register of Foreign Nationals shows that migration flows to Germany are normalizing. Indeed, since 2017, more people from other EU states have been coming to Germany, as was the case before 2015/16. In 2017 itself, some 545,000 people arrived from non-EU countries and some 635,000 from other EU countries.

Many of these individuals are skilled workers. More than 60% of immigrants from EU states who reside in Germany have either a university degree or have completed vocational training. Among immigrants from non-EU states, the number of those granted a residence permit as a skilled worker rose to around 38,000. However, this means that the immigration of skilled workers from outside the EU remains limited and accounts for only 7% of total non-EU immigration. In terms of Germany's labor supply, this group comprises only 0.1% of the total 47 million. Labor migration to Germany from non-EU states increased considerably from 2014 to 2016 in comparison to the labor migration rates observed in Australia, France, the Netherlands and Spain for the same time period. In the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada, we see these rates falling. Germany is also by far the most popular destination country for migrants within the context of the EU's freedom of movement regime.

Germany currently has 1.2 million vacancies nationwide. In addition, its baby-boomer generation will head into retirement in the next few years. The migration of skilled workers to Germany will therefore become increasingly important – as will the need to step up training for domestic workers.

More and more international students are staying in Germany

Notably, a growing number of students from abroad are staying in Germany after completing their studies and working in fields within their area of expertise. In 2017, for example, 9,217 people who arrived with either a student residence permit or who were residing in Germany after completing their studies at a German university acquired a residence permit for gainful employment in a skilled sector. These individuals play an important role in securing skilled labor and are already familiar with the language and culture.

The German labor market also offers opportunities for low-skilled immigrants. Some 22,800 low-skilled workers from non-EU countries with a firm job offer moved to Germany in 2017. The so-called Western Balkan ruling has played a key role in opening up such prospects by allowing citizens of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to immigrate to Germany if they have a job or training offer from a German employer.

"We need an effective immigration law that is anchored in a broader strategy for securing skilled labor for everyone in the country."

Dr. Matthias Mayer, migration expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

Five principles for an effective immigration act

Our migration expert and factsheet author, Matthias Mayer, argues that Germany's coalition government and parliament must work quickly towards agreement on an effective immigration act for skilled workers. In addition, he argues that this legislation should build on five principles:

  • First: Effectiveness. Germany should be able to attract those individuals who are in demand in the labor market. As this includes skilled workers with vocational training, Germany should do more in terms of recognizing foreign vocational qualifications. In addition, the current immigration opportunities offered to foreign nationals with a university degree should be extended to include those foreign nationals who have completed vocational training.
  • Second: Transparency. Existing immigration opportunities must be summarized and communicated more clearly with easy-to-remember titles. We suggest, for example, that in addition to the EU Blue Card for highly qualified individuals, Germany should offer a "Black-Red-Gold Card" for those with professional training, who are particularly relevant for the German labor market.
  • Third: Attractiveness. People who decide to live in Germany should have clear prospects of permanent residency and naturalization.
  • Fourth: Efficiency. Migration administrative facilities must be optimized and their procedures expedited.
  • Fifth: Legitimation. An open exchange over agreed-upon goals such as "We aim to attract anywhere from X to Y number of skilled workers each year" could help deflate fears and promote more rational discussion about migration in Germany.

Ultimately, any skilled workers legislation should promote a pragmatic solution for asylum seekers who have found work and have integrated into society.

One immigration act alone does not create an attractive immigration country

However, it is important to remember that immigration laws are not the only things that attract skilled labor. The things that make Germany attractive are often the result of a combination of factors, some of which are difficult or even impossible for politicians to influence and are not directly associated with immigration policy. These factors include the spread of German as a foreign language, salaries and tax rates, one's prospects of being able to participate in society, opportunities for family members to gain a foothold in Germany, opportunities for a balanced career-family life, social attitudes toward diversity and the extent to which English as a working language is used.

Matthias Mayer emphasizes the importance of Germany's immigration law being embedded in a comprehensive strategy to secure skilled labor that, in addition to addressing immigration from EU and non-EU countries, also addresses the needs of disadvantaged groups within the country, such as the elderly, women, mothers, the (long-term) unemployed, low-skilled workers and people with disabilities.