Voting With Their Feet

A year ago life looked bleak for Jens Sroka. He had just lost his job, courtesy of Germany's never-ending economic slump. Nor did prospects look good in hometown Wurschnitz, a village in eastern Saxony where one in five people is out of work. So he did what millions have done before when they have lost faith in their country's future. He left. Destination: a boomtown in western Sweden called Boras, where bricklayers like himself are in short supply. Today he earns twice what he used to. Soon he'll send for his wife and two sons.

In better times Germany was renowned for its Gastarbeiter--guest workers drawn by the millions from Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. These days it's Germany that is sending its own downtrodden abroad. Last year a net 111,000 people moved out of the country--five times the rate of emigration in healthier times. The overwhelming majority were young workers and their families. Frustrated with their government's economic failures, they are leaving for the United States, Australia and the more dynamic parts of Europe. These days that's almost anywhere.

This wouldn't be Germany if the phenomenon didn't spawn its own bureaucracy. Labor offices around the country now boast full-time emigration advisers. State-financed training centers teaching Dutch, Norwegian or Swedish have recently been set up in major cities. The vocational-training academy in depressed Neuruppin, northwest of Berlin, offers a three-month Fit for Sweden program that prepares unemployed Germans for new lives up north. Many labor offices these days not only finance language classes but actually advertise and promote jobs abroad. They even cover up to 4,500 euros in moving costs.

Other countries are often happy to get well-trained German workers. "There's a big demand for Germans in Holland," says Wim Jansen, owner of a Dutch construction company. "They're thorough and punctual." He has 50 German immigrants working for him and doesn't mind paying the extra money his Germans cost compared with, say, Poles. The Netherlands, where unemployment is a mere 3 percent, is particularly keen on German cooks and construction workers, Sweden is taking nurses and bricklayers, while Ireland profits from an exodus of German IT specialists.

For Germany all this is ample evidence of how badly things are going at home. Those who are leaving tend to be the best-trained and most flexible of its workers--exactly the sort the country should be attracting instead of driving away. They also tend to be young, not a part of the population rapidly aging Germany can afford to lose. The fact that the German government is funding and promoting this drain--instead of effectively solving the underlying economic problems that cause it--shows just how desperate it has become.

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