Eastern Germans head to the west for jobs, more prosperous futures

February 09, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special correspondent

HAMBURG, Germany -- Despite two years of radical political and economic changes in the former East Germany, Arno Meier gave up on his hometown and headed west to this bustling port city.

Like up to 20,000 other eastern Germans who head west each month, Mr. Meier decided that change was not coming fast enough in the east and his best chance for a prosperous future lay in the west.

"If you look at the businesses over there, all the old bosses are the same. They're all in new political parties now, but they're the same people," said Mr. Meier, 48, who arrived in Hamburg last month.

While few people fault these eastern Germans for not wanting to wait for their region's much-prophesied economic recovery, the trend worries experts and officials. The loss of qualified workers is seen as a long-term brain drain that threatens the area's future well-being.

Government figures show an estimated net loss of 240,000 people last year -- or 20,000 a month -- for the five eastern states that make up the former East Germany.

Although far from the 60,000 a month leaving two years ago, the current losses are possibly more significant because they represent a long-term trend that could bleed the region of many of its best employees, said sociologist Jochen Blaschke of the Berlin Institute for Comparative Social Research.

"The region has already suffered damage from the flow. I fear that this could become a cycle: lack of qualified workers, limited investment; limited investment, more departures," Mr. Blaschke said.

Severe unemployment is another problem plaguing the east. Joblessness jumped from 11.8 percent in December to a record 17 percent, or 1,343,400 people, in January. By comparison, unemployment in the west was 7 percent in January.

The number of migrants would be higher if not for western Germany's extreme housing shortage, Mr. Blaschke and other experts say. Up to 2 million apartments are lacking in the west, including 125,000 in Hamburg. Surveys of the 500,000 eastern Germans who commute each day to western Germany and western Berlin indicate that many would move there if they could find an apartment.

The continual loss of people comes despite a predicted 10 percent economic growth rate for eastern Germany this year. But the upturn -- largely confined to the construction sector and on the heels of massive reductions in 1990 and 1991 -- is too limited and too slow for many people.

Mr. Meier, for example, said he believes that eastern Germany will not reach western Germany's level for years.

"The better life is here, not there. Here there are jobs. Here life is more colorful. There it will take years," said Mr. Meier, a salesman.

Mr. Meier's 18-year-old son, Roland, also has no plans to return to Rostock, a struggling port on the Baltic Sea. He favors a plumber's apprenticeship in the west to an uncertain education and future in the east, Mr. Meier said.

A more dramatic sign of this skilled-labor loss is an 18-month drop in the number of industrial research scientists from 70,000 to less than 20,000, according to the German Economics Ministry. Most have left their struggling eastern German companies for western ones that are eager for their solid scientific education and able to pay much higher salaries.

To counter this loss in long-term competitiveness, the government has initiated several programs, including a $1.1 billion plan to help pay scientists' salaries and to set up institutes where they can do basic research.

Part of the problem in assessing the east-to-west flow is that the government stopped counting the number of arriving eastern Germans on July 1, 1990, when East and West Germany merged their currencies. The two countries were unified three months later.

"The migration westward is another sign that the [economic] pickup in the east is not affecting all people. This isn't the news the government wants to hear so the research has been cut off," Mr. Blaschke said.

Not all agree with this assessment, however. Hans Kock, a social worker with the Hamburg YMCA, said that because eastern Germans no longer receive benefits when they arrive in a western city, there is no way to keep exact tabs on their movement. "It's just like a person moving from Munich to Hamburg. No agency has figures on this," he said.

Mr. Kock said he is worried about the continual westward flow of people. Through his 30 years' experience in helping East Germans adjust to life in Hamburg, he has extensive contacts with the eastern community and knows that it is steadily growing.

"People just don't want to wait. They want to work now and live their lives now," he said. "Hamburg is booming so they're coming here."

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