Small and medium-sized companies in Germany’s more rural areas face huge challenges as labor shortages are increasingly being felt in the countryside.
When visitors take in the view from the ruins of castle Rosenstein, perched on a large rock above the town of Heubach, they will hardly suspect the region before their eyes of being an engineering hotbed. Fields and forests dominate the landscape, with a few small towns scattered about.
But Kunjan Patel, a 30-year-old engineer from India, says it is the wide range of career options for engineers that he finds most attractive about East Württemberg, an area located an hour’s drive to the east of Stuttgart, in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.
“This is a nice region for engineers,” he says. “There are many interesting companies here, and each company has its individual style.”
About 450,000 people live in East Württemberg, an area more than twice as large as Berlin. The region boasts many successful companies, among them more than 300 firms in toolmaking, mechanical and plant engineering.
This makes it one of many German regions that are rather rural, but economically important. According to the German government, rural regions account for about half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) which stood at around €3.9 trillion ($4.1 trillion) in 2022.
As young people move from the countryside to the cities, the population of many rural areas ages even more rapidly than that of urban areas. This means the countryside needs to attract workers not only from urban areas, but also from abroad.
However, migrant workers lack the family ties that make many native Germans return to rural regions once they settle down. They might also be reluctant to move to areas with uncertain career prospects and worry about a less satisfying social life amid an ethnically less diverse and more conservative population.
Local universities play key role in recruiting foreign graduates
Patel works at Richter lighting technologies, a producer of high-end lighting systems based in Heubach, a town of 10,000 inhabitants. According to the company, it has 110 employees from 34 countries.
Patel joined Richter in 2019. He was hired after visiting the company with a group of international students at the nearby University of Aalen, where Patel pursued a master’s degree.
Convincing international students to stay on after their degree is one of the most effective ways to attract foreign graduates to the region, Markus Schmid of the East Württemberg Chamber of Commerce and Industry says. Otherwise, he told DW, especially small and medium-sized companies in the region have few ways to catch the attention of potential applicants from abroad.
This is less of a problem for large global companies based in the region, as they can afford lavish recruitment campaigns and have a strong employer brand.
“At the moment, we can meet our needs for skilled workers, also due to our activities on the international labor market,” Georg von Erffa, head of corporate human resources at Zeiss, a large optics firm with headquarters in East Württemberg, told DW.
Small companies need to develop their own approach
With far fewer resources at his disposal, Bernd Richter, the owner of Richter lighting, had to find his own ways to build and retain the diverse workforce of his company — sometimes at considerable personal effort: Occasionally, he even hosts new employees at his family home.
Richter’s approach to hiring, he says, is “never to exclude anything.” Being able to speak German, for example, is not a knock-out criterion for him. The official working language at Richter is English, much to the satisfaction of Kunjan Patel, who says that learning German has been the greatest challenge of living in Germany. At Richter, employees are also offered free German lessons.
The mayor of Heubach, Joy Alemazung, says he wants immigrants to feel not only tolerated, but accepted in the town.
“If I don’t feel different when someone is talking to me, I feel at home,” Alemazung told DW. He can draw on his own experience, having moved from his native Cameroon to Germany as a student.
The vibrant associational life of rural places can help foster the acceptance of immigrants, Alemazung says, as it provides newcomers and locals with opportunities to mingle. In this regard, rural areas have an edge over cities, he argues.
Kunjan Patel says he is satisfied with the lifestyle East Württemberg has to offer.
“The social life is good,” he told DW, with many events both at and outside of work. Patel also enjoys hiking on the Alb, a mountainous plateau in the region. “I love summer on the Alb,” he says.
This should be good news for his boss. As Bernd Richter puts it, attracting workers to East Württemberg is ultimately a matter of finding out “who would really be fulfilled here.”
Source : DW