Schwabisch Hall: German town in PR talent drive
- 14 August 2012
- From the section Magazine
The sleepy German town of Schwabisch Hall was short of skilled workers so it appealed to job hunters from across Europe, and was flooded with applications from thousands of hopefuls.
Wrapped in a big white apron, Catia Cruz is putting the finishing touches to some plates of lobster salad.
Another chef, his face shining with sweat, tells her where to find the dressing. Sounding slightly exasperated, he switches from German to English to make himself understood.
Catia is still learning the ropes in this busy kitchen in the southern German town of Schwabisch Hall.
The 28-year-old Portuguese cook from a small town outside Lisbon only moved here recently but she is part of a growing army of skilled young people from southern Europe who have been lured north, to work in Germany.
With its cobbled streets winding down to the river and its handsome half-timbered houses, Schwabisch Hall is a chocolate-box pretty town. It was built centuries ago on the wealth of the white gold from the medieval salt mines.
Today, this corner of Europe is still flourishing. The state of Baden-Wurttemberg is home to many of the small and medium-sized family enterprises - the famous Mittelstand - which are the backbone of Germany's export economy. There is just one problem - a severe shortage of skilled labour.
In fact there were so many vacancies in the region that the town's mayor decided to take action.
In January he launched a PR offensive and invited journalists from all over southern Europe to his city, including a young reporter from Portugal.
Madalena Queiros wrote a glowing article for Portugal's Diaro Economico business newspaper, which described a semi-paradise with high wages, free kindergartens and no traffic jams. Within hours, the article was all over Facebook and other social networking sites.
The response was "overwhelming", says Petra Hildenbrandt from Schwabisch Hall's employment office. Her office computers were soon struggling with 15,000 applications from Portugal alone.
"While we were struggling to process all these CVs, about 60 Portuguese people just turned up," she recalls.
"They came by plane, by train, by car or by bus, they just knocked at the door of the employment agency and of course we tried to help them."
But so far only a fraction of those who applied have actually got jobs in the area. Many did not have the right qualifications and most German companies are looking for professionals - young men like Rodrigo Garulo Galiana, fresh out of a top Madrid university.
Rodrigo is responsible for quality control at Bausch and Stroebel, a pharmaceutical equipment company just outside Schwabisch Hall.
As we walk around the gleaming factory floor, I can't help wincing when he shows me a device which produces the little syringes dentists fill with painkiller before they give you a filling.
Rodrigo seems at ease with the machinery but I wonder how he gets on with the people.
"At the beginning some of the staff here were a little bit sceptical," he says. "Maybe because of my foreign accent they thought I wasn't as intelligent as they are but now things are better and they are friendlier."
At least Rodrigo speaks basic German. Down the road at a company which makes production lines for solar panels, another young Spanish engineer, David Costa Munoz, struggles to communicate.
But the 25-year-old says he had no choice but to leave his home town of Barcelona.
"Looking for work there was really hard - firms may invite you for an interview but they hardly ever offer you a contract."
David adds that there are fewer and fewer hi-tech companies in Spain and often trained engineers are asked to work as technicians.
In his large airy office, Bernd Spreche, the company's managing director, says it has taken a year to recruit a specialist like David, because young German engineers are snapped up by big car companies in the area like Mercedes and BMW which can pay higher salaries.
He bridles at the suggestion that his company is benefiting from the troubles in the eurozone.
"The European crisis is also a big problem for us," he says. "Today our customers are exclusively in Asia... there is no business left in Europe."
Petra Hildenbrandt of the employment office says the language barrier is the biggest stumbling block for many new arrivals.
"There are a few companies with an international profile where an employee might get away with English, but in most cases you have to speak German," she says.
At a language class in the centre of Schwabisch Hall, there are bars on all the windows because the building is a former prison. Patiently, the teacher is getting each of the dozen pupils to tell her what you might find in a typical bathroom. Then she moves on to the kitchen.
There are Portuguese, Spaniards and a young Greek man in the class, as well as pupils from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Romania.
Some find the exercises easy. Others, like Maria, a secretary from Spain, seem tortured by the long German words and their pronunciation.
Maria has not got a job yet, although she has applied to more than 20 local companies. She did have a job in a warehouse near Frankfurt but her contract ended earlier this year.
Now she is entitled to unemployment benefit, but without fluent German she realises her chances of finding a well-paid job in Schwabisch Hall are slim.
"It's not easy living here," she says, "but I am going to stay because there's nothing for me at home and here at least I'm learning a new language."
At the end of her long shift in the kitchen, Portuguese cook Catia Cruz looks drained as we walk towards a bar in the town centre.
Over a beer, she tells me that despite the friendly atmosphere in the restaurant kitchen she does get lonely.
Her parents, her sisters, her husband and her friends are all in Portugal. Some of them wonder why she came to Germany when she had a job and her own apartment and car back home.
"The thing is, you can work yourself to the bone in Portugal and still not have enough money to eat. We pay so much in taxes that we can't really live - we can only survive."
Catia is ambitious and her dream is to go the Cordon Bleu school in London and train as a top-notch pastry cook - but for that, she needs to save up.
She works long hours and admits that she is often irritated by the north/south stereotypes bandied about in Germany.
She was particularly annoyed when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested people living in southern European countries should retire later and take fewer holidays.
"In my contract here I have 25 days off, and, you know, in Portugal the maximum is 22 so the Germans actually have three more vacation days than us.
"I've been in Schwabisch Hall for three months and in the first month and a half there were about 10 public holidays - so they sometimes say one thing and do another."
Listening to her, I am reminded of Chancellor Merkel's favourite character - the Schwabisch Hausfrau - the thrifty Swabian housewife.
When she is pushing an austerity agenda, the German chancellor often urges member states to emulate the frugal hausfrau from this most conservative corner of Germany.
The reality is that, whether they like it or not, Germany is one of the few countries offering jobs at the moment and if you work here it's on German terms.
The economic storms across Europe have uprooted a generation of young people - and in Germany some have found a safe haven rather than an El Dorado.
The trouble is who knows how many of these bright young migrants will ever return to rebuild the economy in their own countries?