The German government has decided to extend its green card programme for IT specialists until the end of 2004, when a new immigration law is expected to regulate work and residency permits for highly qualified, non-European Union workers seeking employment in the country.
The green card programme, which was scheduled to finish at the end of this month, will allow more than 15,000 cardholders, largely from India and Eastern Europe, to remain in Germany through to the end of next year, the federal government said last week in a statement.
After that deadline, the left-of-centre government of chancellor Gerhard Schröder hopes to replace the green card initiative --introduced as an interim solution to remedy an acute shortage of software and network engineers -- with a new, more broadly-defined immigration policy.
"Under the proposed new law, highly trained workers not only from the IT sector but also from all other sectors will be able to work and live in Germany without a time limit," says a spokeswoman from the Federal Ministry of the Interior.
By comparison, the green card targeted IT professionals only and granted them permission to work in Germany for a set period of time.
While the immigration bill has passed the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, it has failed to clear the upper house, the Bundesrat, according to the ministry spokeswoman. The bill has meanwhile moved to a special committee, made up of representatives from both chambers, who will meet on September 24 to begin discussions on achieving a compromise, she says.
In August 2000, the German government introduced the US-style green card to lure IT talent into the country and help overcome a growing deficit of skilled computer professionals in local companies. At that time, the skill shortage was particularly acute among programmers and software developers.
Even though the IT and telecom sectors in Germany have been affected by the global economic downturn, the country is still need of computer and networking experts, albeit at a noticeably lower level than over the past two years, according to Germany's main IT industry association, the Bundesverband Informationswirtschaft, Telekommunikation und neue Medien, eV, (BITKOM).
"The high-tech sector has definitely been hit by the economic slump and some green card holders have been affected by layoffs and bankruptcies, but many companies continue to struggle to find qualified IT professionals, especially in the area of IT security," says association spokesman Stefan Grob, a spokesman. "Believe it or not, Germany has only one professor specialised in this area."
A survey conducted by BITKOM in June revealed that around 12.5% of the companies polled were unable to find the right people to fill their IT job openings, compared to 41.3% for the same period in 2002 and 45.6% the year before, the association said in a statement.
Around 60% of the green card holders are employed in companies with fewer than 100 employees, according to the association.
BITKOM hopes the new immigration legislation will be approved but concedes there is no guarantee that it will, according to Grob. "We are urging representatives from our sector and others not to overload the bill with special interests," he says. "That will only complicate the situation."