SCHWÄBISCH HALL, Germany -- While much of southern Europe is struggling with soaring unemployment rates, a robust Germany is desperate for educated workers, and it has begun to look south for the solution.
In the last 18 months, it has recruited thousands of the Continent's best and brightest to this postcard-perfect town and many others like it, a migration of highly qualified young job-seekers that could set back Europe's stragglers even more, while giving Germany a further leg up.
One of those helping forge the new era is Cristina Fernández-Aparicio Ruiz, 36, a newly arrived engineer from Spain, where unemployment just hit a depression-level 24.4 percent. She is working at an industrial company near here, trying to find a way to make a new elevator part mesh with older components.
Her German is spotty. But the company, Ziehl-Abegg, assigned her a mentor who made sure she had someone to sit with at lunch. And if she needed help finding a doctor or going to the supermarket, the company was ready to help with that, too.
"They are very nice here," said Ms. Fernández-Aparicio, from Madrid. "And at the moment there are no jobs in Spain."
The free movement of labor was one of the founding principles of the European Union, a central part of the effort to create a single, unified market. But in more prosperous times, few workers outside of Eastern Europe felt compelled to leave home.
That is changing under the pressures of the euro crisis and a harsh recession, and employers, governments and the migrants themselves are discovering that immigration, even when legal and nominally accepted, can raise tensions in ways that Europe's founders may never have anticipated. Who wins and who loses -- if anyone -- is a matter of growing debate. But there is widespread agreement that Europe is rapidly entering a new era whose ramifications are only beginning to be understood.
For the most part, southern Europeans are relieved to find refuge in towns in this largely rural region in the state of Baden-Württemberg. But the strains of differing languages and cultures make many of the young migrants hang back when it comes to longer-term commitments like registering their cars here or signing up for two-year cellphone contracts.
The area is home to many of the small and medium-size family enterprises, known as the Mittelstand, that power Germany's industrial export economy. But for many companies, finding qualified employees and keeping them is the challenge. There are 7,500 open jobs in Heilbronn-Franken, the region that is home to Schwäbisch Hall. These include everything from health care to hospitality, but the most dire need is for engineers.
When Hermann-Josef Pelgrim, the mayor here, invited several journalists from southern Europe to write about job opportunities in Schwäbisch (pronounced SHVAY-bish) Hall this year, the response to a glowing article by the Portuguese reporter was overwhelming. More than 15,000 unemployed Portuguese have since submitted their résumés. About 40 simply showed up.
In December, a planeload of 100 Spanish engineers flew to nearby Stuttgart for a weekend of job interviews. Within a month, about a third of them had been hired. And some German companies have been making connections over the Internet, simply plucking Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Italian professionals from sites like LinkedIn.
Yet the migration -- while urgently needed at the moment by both sides -- has stirred fears that it may be conferring yet another advantage on Europe's most powerful economy. German exporters have benefited from a euro dragged down in value by the struggling southern countries, and they are able to borrow money at rock-bottom rates as investors seek safe havens. Now, as the southern countries watch their young people move north, some are grumbling of a brain drain as well.
"This generation of young people who are leaving are our best qualified ever," said César Castel, the director of operations for the Spanish branch of Adecco, a Swiss headhunting firm. "It is a huge loss of investment for Spain. On average it cost us 60,000 euros to train each engineer, and they are leaving." That is about $80,000.
Mr. Castel says the crisis has flipped his business. He used to find employees for Spanish companies. Now he finds Spaniards for foreign companies, many of them German. Most jobs are in health services and engineering.
If Spain's economy turns around in two years, Mr. Castel said, he expects 90 percent of the Spanish professionals to return home. If the recession holds on longer, the figures could drop precipitously as the workers marry and have children abroad. He fears a situation where the northern economies retain industry and the southern ones are left with agriculture and tourism.
Germany's experience with integrating foreign workers, particularly the country's large Turkish minority, has proved difficult. Today, many government officials and business leaders are examining Germany's culture, eager to do what it takes to be hospitable and acknowledging that they have not always been so.
"We need to become a welcoming culture," said Guido Rebstock, head of the jobs agency in Schwäbisch Hall, repeating a phrase that has become part of the vocabulary here. "The firms have to help the workers with more than their jobs."
Mr. Rebstock said the issue was driven home recently as the town contemplated its first-grade enrollment. In the last 13 years, the entering classes have shrunk by about 30 percent. "The demographic theme has definitely arrived here," he said.
Last year, though, even while deaths once again exceeded births, the German population grew for the first time since 2002, thanks to a net immigration of 240,000 people, nearly double the 128,000 net gain in 2010. Countries like Poland and Romania sent the most, but German government statistics showed thousands more coming from the crisis-stricken southern nations.
To the unemployed masses in the south, Germany's needs are a relief. In Baden-Württemberg, the unemployment rate is just 4 percent. The country seems like "El Dorado," the legendary lost city of gold, said one Spanish engineer still searching for a job in Schwäbisch Hall. For the most part, engineers are being offered twice the salaries they could make in Spain, he said, though taxes are higher in Germany.
They generally find Germany more attractive than alternatives like South America and Australia because it is so close to home. Some say they expect to make lives here, but many say they are still hoping to return home soon.
Many of the Spaniards say the work environment in Germany takes getting used to, with Germans far more direct than Spanish people and much quieter. No one makes personal calls during business hours, for instance. But the work day is much shorter.
They were surprised that they were expected to greet co-workers each morning with formal handshakes and to call colleagues "Herr" and "Frau" (Mr. and Ms.). Impromptu hallway conversations over work issues were cut off by Germans suggesting it would be more appropriate to schedule a formal meeting.
The German fondness for order, often joked about, has proved true, said Carlos Baixeras, 30, an engineer who started working near Frankfurt 18 months ago. "There are rules for everything," he said. "There's a trash police."
David Jiménez, 23, who just started working in Pforzheim, near Stuttgart, said his first few weeks were a nightmare. He could not even explain to the barber how he wanted his hair cut. Finally, he fell back on Europe's common language: soccer. He pointed at his head and said, "Cristiano Ronaldo," the name of the famous Portuguese striker. He still does not know what the different products are when he goes shopping.
"I can't get a cold," he said. "If I get a cold I don't know what I'm going to do."
Right now, the migration benefits both countries. For Spain it relieves pressure on the overstretched welfare state and gives job opportunities to what has quickly become known as the lost generation. The conflict will begin when Spain eventually recovers and wants its engineers back.
"If they leave in a year or two, that is not good," said Peter Fenkl, the president of the executive board of Ziehl-Abegg, Ms. Fernández-Aparicio's employer. He estimated that it costs as much as $50,000 more to train and integrate a foreign worker than it does a German. But the company has little choice -- having enough highly trained workers to fill orders is a necessity.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.