BERLIN - Prosperous Germany has a surprising message for sinking Greece: Help Wanted.
With a shrinking labour force and buoyant economy, Germany desperately needs skilled workers to keep its industrial engine churning forward. Increasingly, it's seeking them from Greece and other European laggards like Spain and Portugal where unemployment is soaring amid fears of financial implosion.
Germany quickly overcame the financial meltdown that started in 2008 and unemployment is now at a 20-year low of 6.6 per cent. Companies are so desperate to fill skilled labour shortages that the government has taken to organizing matchmaking sessions between German firms and job seekers from crisis-hit countries.
Greek civil engineer Christos Kotanidis moved to Erlangen in southern Germany three months ago and quickly found work with industrial giant Siemens.
The 33-year-old's former company in Saloniki put him on part-time earlier this year because, struck by the financial crisis, it could no longer afford to pay full salaries. It took Kotanidis only six weeks to land a full-time position in Germany.
"I decided to look for a job in Germany because it has a stable economy," Kotanidis said. "In Greece the economic situation is bad now, but the future looks even worse."
Unemployment in Greece is currently at 16.7 per cent, but among young people it is even higher with more than 42 per cent of people under 24 not finding any work. In Spain, overall unemployment hovers at around 20 per cent, and more than 45 per cent of people under the age of 25 are without a job. Portugal, Italy and Ireland, the other countries bearing the brunt of the debt crisis, also have bleak employment pictures.
There are no hard numbers on how many professionals from Europe's crisis zone have been hired in Germany. Immigration to Germany has shot up by 13 per cent in the past five years, and more than half of the newcomers are from within the European Union. EU citizens do not need to apply for a visa or work permit if they take a job within the bloc.
In the 1960s, Germany recruited millions of unskilled workers from Turkey to help rebuild the country from the ashes of World War II.
Now the focus is on highly skilled professionals — something the struggling nations of Europe's southern rim have in abundance.
The Association of German Engineers estimates that Germany has 80,000 engineering jobs that need to be filled; the nation's physicians' association says the country's hospitals require more than 12,000 doctors. The government said this year there's a shortage of 66,000 information technology specialists.
Over the past few months, the Federal Employment Agency has organized several meetings to match German companies with job applicants in Spain, Portugal and Greece.
"We really need physicians, nurses and engineers — and we have started recruiting them in those EU countries with high unemployment," said agency spokeswoman Beate Raabe.
Germany's skilled workers shortage is only projected to increase as the country's population ages. Mid-sized companies in particular have added lots of new jobs to fulfil industrial orders.
Against that backdrop, the country pushed through new legislation this year to speed up the recognition of foreign qualifications and degrees.
Some companies have started recruitment drives in crisis-hit countries. After organizing two job fairs in Ireland this year, Globalfoundries, a semiconductor manufacturing company in Dresden, hired and brought 30 Irish engineers to the eastern German city.
Ivan O'Connor was one of them. The 31-year-old technology engineer from Ballinhassig in Cork started working for Globalfoundries last December.
"I really like living and working here, the quality of life is very good and I was seeking a job when the opportunity came up," O'Connor said in an email to the AP.
His move to Germany was helped by the fact that the office language at Globalfoundries, as an international company, is English.
That's an exception, as most German companies expect foreign employees to speak German. The Goethe Institute, which offers German language classes around the globe, has noticed more Europeans seeking to overcome that language barrier.
At Barcelona's Goethe Institute, the number of language students has gone up by 54 per cent in the past two years and more than 70 per cent of the students say they're learning German to improve their career chances, said Diar Amin, a spokesman for the Barcelona Goethe Institute. The situation is similar in other Spanish cities, the institute says.
With a university degree in hand and not a job in sight in his native Barcelona, 22-year-old Enrique Serratosa saw brushing up on his German as the first step toward finding work in Germany.
"The situation here is very hard, unemployment is high, and it's all just getting worse and worse," said Serratosa, who signed a contract with chemical company Wacker in Munich after taking language lessons to supplement his college German.
"About 80 per cent of my friends are looking for jobs abroad and many of them want to go to Germany — we can learn a lot there and salaries are also higher."