Various research institutes predict that Germany will experience a decrease in qualified professionals, particularly in the healthcare and industrial sectors. The migration of refugees may well nourish hope of being the solution to the demographic problems in the German labour market. However, current figures prove that many refugees have a major skills gap and that only a small share is employed.

A study conducted by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) also shows that, of the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea who held jobs subject to social security contributions in June 2015, a large share (44 per cent) was engaged solely in unskilled labour – a rate nearly three times as high as the German average among employed persons subject to social security contributions.

However, a look at all immigrants – including qualified professionals – reveals that foreign workers already play a key role in securing a skilled workforce in industry-related occupations.

The employment of foreign specialists and professionals increased by 16 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2012 and the second quarter of 2015; whereas, the employment of Germans with the same qualifications decreased by 0.1 per cent during the same period.

The dynamics in professional industry-related occupations were especially high. The employment increase of nearly 27 per cent among foreign workers was three times as high as among Germans. A similar development could be seen in the health professions. What this implies:

If the employment of foreign workers between the end of 2012 and the middle of 2015 had remained constant, there would be 74,100 fewer skilled workers in industrial occupations today, and 19,300 fewer in the health professions.

A detailed comparison of German and foreign workers reveals some astonishing findings:

In industrial occupations, French and Indian employees lead the rankings of foreign workers in Germany. In relative terms, the industrial sector has more French and Indian workers than German workers; and these foreign workers are increasingly employed in professional areas.

Central and Eastern European as well as Turkish workers also have a high rate of representation in the industrial sector – but less in the professional occupations, and more as skilled workers.

Immigrants from China, Canada, Brazil and the United States are employed in fewer industry-related occupations than other foreign workers; but when they do work in the industrial sector, it is primarily at the professional level.

Refugees from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan do not frequently work in industry-related occupations; and when they do, it is rarely at the professional level – except in the case of Syrians. The same is true for the healthcare professions, although Syrians constitute an exception here, too: indeed, in the second quarter of 2015, there were 1,500 Syrians employed in the healthcare professions – making them the fourth-largest group of workers in this sector, after the Romanians, Greeks and Austrians.

It would take considerable training measures for the migration of refugees to contribute towards securing a skilled workforce in the industrial sector. Looking forward, qualified non-EU immigrants are particularly needed in this area; and this will require an immigration act that takes three points into account:

First, in spite of recent easements, the legal regulations are highly complex in many areas and leave substantial room for interpretation. The goal needs to be the creation of a single provision – that is, a residency permit – for each group of people, rather than having multiple possibilities.

Second, the immigration of skilled workers should be aligned with their potential. People from non-EU countries should be permitted to enter Germany even without a specific job offer, if their qualifications make it likely that they will easily integrate into the German employment market.

A point system could serve as the basis for the selection; besides a person’s qualification, the system would also take the applicant’s knowledge of German, professional experience and age into account. However, a prerequisite for immigration would be that the person is able to support his or her own livelihood.

Third, a modern immigration regulatory system requires effective administration. Particularly desirable would be a central issuing agency for residence permits. This would allow decisions to be made based on a standardised model, and those working in the agency could gain further expertise in dealing with the very specific issues that arise within the system.

Yet even if Germany introduces new immigration regulations, it mustn’t forget to make better use of the refugees’ potential – at the very least for humanitarian reasons. Refugees cannot take the place of qualified immigration, but they still make a contribution to securing a skilled workforce.