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Skills shortages? "Then why can't you find a job?"


By KOLJA RUDZIO

Why some specialists remain unemployed even in times of the job miracle and widespread skills shortages.

Skills shortages? “Then why can’t you find a job?”© spacejunkie - Photocase.deDespite the skills shortage, there are also unemployed specialists
The worst part is the good news. When the papers report on Germany's job miracle. When someone on the radio declares that specialists are in greater demand than ever before. Or a talking head on television claims that full employment is near, that only the »hardcore unemployed« are left. When he finds himself faced with these pronouncements, Hans Baumann* gets angry. Decries the »mendacious press« and »malicious politicians«. And just wants to scream out loud. »All this flim-flam about skills shortages! This nonsense parroted by the media! Unbearable!« In moments like these, Baumann struggles to calm down. His own day-to-day experiences are a far cry from the media reports. Rosy times for jobseekers? Not for Baumann. He receives one rejection letter after another.

But Hans Baumann is not one of the long-term jobless lounging around in sweatpants with a bottle of beer who inhabit the world of unemployment as seen on TV. The man from Frankfurt has an engineering Diplom and 30 years of professional experience. He wants to work. Nonetheless, this spring he slid into long-term unemployment. On 1 May he had been unsuccessfully searching for work for a year. For him, Labour Day was a day of anger. Not many unemployed people are as well qualified as Baumann, but neither is he entirely unique. Approximately 180,000 jobless people have a university degree, another 1.7 million have at least a completed vocational qualification. They all are specialists, they all can consider themselves addressed when skills shortages are discussed. And skills shortages are still an issue; despite fears about the economy, the labour market remains in good condition. Nonetheless, even some highly qualified unemployed people are searching for work in vain. Today they find their situation even harder to bear than in times of extremely high unemployment. It seems paradoxical, but they are more frustrated than ever before. The laments about skills shortages are constant - so how are they supposed to make themselves or others understand why they cannot find work?

In the spring of 2010, all was still well in Hans Baumann's world. He was working at Siemens, reviewing construction plans for a new gas power plant, checking whether valves, boilers or pressure gauges were properly positioned. He was employed by an engineering service provider who placed him as a temp at the Munich electronics corporation. Everyone was happy with his work. But because Siemens was getting too few new orders for power plants, the process engineer finally lost his job. Initially it looked as if he would quickly find something new. A manufacturer of wind power plants was interested in him. But when it became clear that the post required excellent English language skills, that fell apart. »My English is good enough for the coarse banter on building sites«, says Baumann, »but when companies demand business-fluent English, they mean something else.«

But the biggest problem, suspects the engineer, is his age. He is 61. »Of course nobody openly tells me so, but they want younger people.« And the companies get them, he says. »The skills shortage«, Baumann concludes after over a year of seeking work, »is completely exaggerated.« Like the engineer, many unemployed people doubt the euphoric reports from the labour market. Some think they are a complete lie - the theory is particularly popular on Internet fora. There are claims that in reality, seven or even ten million people are out of work - although the statistics presented as proof do not bear this out. To arrive at these numbers requires even the children and partners of workless people to be included. It is true that those registered as unemployed do not represent the full extent of the calamity - approximately one million people in early retirement and on job creation schemes have to be added to their number. But even calculated like this, the employment situation today is better than at any time since reunification. So statistical tricks can't explain why it remains difficult for some people to find employment.

»In view of 370 applications we unfortunately cannot give reasons for rejections«

Competition for some jobs is however still extremely high. Petra Weinberg* even has it in writing. She has kept her rejection letters and highlighted certain sentences in them. »In view of over 370 applications, we regret that we are unable to give detailed reasons for rejections«, reads one of them. There is mention of »over 160 applications« or a wave of »approximately 300 applications that took us completely by surprise too«. And these are posts that require a sophisticated profile: degrees, professional experience, periods abroad, language skills. Petra Weinberg meets all these criteria, but still her letters always end with the same frustrating phrases - »we wish you all the best for the future«.

Petra Weinberg has a PhD in ethnology. She has published articles in academic journals, spent several years abroad, speaks German, English, Spanish and French, she has previously worked in development aid, as a librarian and as a lecturer in adult education. She is not lacking in qualifications. Nor in commitment. When the funding for a small development project fell apart, the Cologne native saved up the necessary money herself. She gave talks, collected donations, sold books and junk from her church community on flea markets - until she had enough money to go to Bolivia for one and a half years. When she came back, she found herself unemployed again. She has been living on Hartz IV since that unemployment benefit was introduced in 2005. Some of the furniture in her flat comes from rubbish tips. The 55-year-old bitterly states: »I still live exactly as I did in my student days.«

Friends and acquaintances are increasingly telling her: »I just don't understand why you can't find work.« That gnaws at her. All this talk of skills shortages, says the academic and doctorate holder, makes her feel »deeply humiliated« and »misled«. It shouldn't really affect her. There is no shortage of ethnologists or librarians. The record low unemployment figures also say little about her chances. Public debate however frequently fails to differentiate. It's as if one expected the weather report to announce a temperature for the whole of Germany from the Alps to the North Sea coast, ideally applying both in the shade and in broad sunlight. What is clearly nonsense in terms of the weather is unconsciously taken as read by many when it comes to the labour market. The unemployment rate, an average figure, apparently applies to everyone.

Seeking not an IT worker but an expert in Oracle 10g

Experts at the Federal Employment Agency in fact record the reality far more precisely. They know that enormous differences exist not only between regions, but also from profession to profession. Each month they analyse where there actually is a shortage of skills. Result: topping the list of 200 careers are physicians. Vacant positions for them often remain open until a suitable applicant has been found - the average gap is over 150 days. This is unsurprising - in the medical profession there is not even one unemployed physician per reported vacancy. Statistically, there are only 0.85 unemployed people per job opening. The labour market is similarly sunny for nurses, carers and midwives. Vacant positions for them remain unfilled for 100 days, there are only 0.77 jobseekers per opening.

For specialists like Petra Weinberg on the other hand, the climate on the labour market is much harsher. The professions that match her skills - scholars, librarians, lecturers - are at the very bottom of the ranking, between no. 160 and no. 190, close to warehouse managers and checkout operators. Here the ratio is not a fraction of an applicant to each post; instead, between nine and 25 jobseekers jostle for each position. No trace of a job boom. That is how huge the differences are in today's world of work. While 50 years ago there were still numerous simple roles that could be taken up with a little on-the-job training, specialisation has since increased steadily. The tasks have become more sophisticated, the entire world of work ever more differentiated. That is why an average figure such as the unemployment rate nowadays says less about the chances of an individual than ever before. Even within a single professional field there are often enormous differences.

Frank Walther* has found this out for himself. Every day he sits down at his computer in his small flat in Frankfurt and trawls the Internet jobsites Stepstone and jobpilot. He clicks the »IT/Telecoms« section and sifts through the offerings. They brim with opaque specialist terms: »Microsoft Hyper-V« for example. »Oracle 10g« or »CAS Genesis World«. Barely a job posting that does not contain an extensive requirements profile full of specialised skills. What they are looking for is not simply an IT person, but an expert for the »VMware vSphere virtualisation environment«.

»Companies probably complain about skills shortages when they can't find people with precisely the right profile«, suspects Walther. »In my field at least there seem to be rather too many applicants.« The 48-year-old wants to work as a systems administrator for Windows programs. He has a vocational degree as an industrial computer scientist and a number of certificates from Windows manufacturer Microsoft. But Hyper-V, that's a whole different story. Walther does his best to keep his expertise up to date. On his desk is a self-study book. Most recently, he took an exam for a certificate, at his own expense, in April. So far it hasn't helped. In Walther's case there is also the problem that his CV is not entirely streamlined. He dropped out of a degree course in computer science, the term »seeking work« pops up repeatedly in his employment history. His two best years with professional IT experience ended when the dot-com bubble burst ten years ago. In the meantime, unemployment itself has become a handicap for him. Employers don't know what to make of him, says Walther. »That's a big problem because it can be very, very expensive if a network administrator makes a mistake.« Walther is at a dead end.

What helps qualified jobseekers? Often, individual advice is needed - for example to open up a route into a less difficult IT niche for Frank Walther. Sometimes what it takes is luck. Hans Baumann started a new job last week. He now reviews construction plans for a conveying system in Friedrichshafen. It's only temporary work, and the job could be over in May. But at least it's a job. Many would simply be grateful for a little more understanding. When there are only a small number of unemployed people, it is particularly difficult to be one of them and have weaknesses as an applicant. But who among the 41 million working people has none of those?

* Changed name

By DIE ZEIT :: 29.09.2011