BERLIN A record-breaking influx of refugees could help ease Germany's skills shortage and companies should start training programs for asylum-seekers to speed up integration, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Thursday.
With the number of deaths outstripping births, Berlin estimates the working-age population in Germany will shrink by 6 million people by 2030 and some companies say they are already struggling to fill vacancies.
Gabriel, who is Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy, described the expected arrival of an estimated 800,000 asylum-seekers by the end of 2015 "the biggest national, European challenge" since German reunification in 1990.
He told the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) that it was important to integrate them quickly to ensure they became a benefit, not a burden, for Europe's largest economy.
"If we manage to quickly train those that come to us and to get them into work, then we will solve one of our biggest problems for the economic future of our country: the skills shortage," Gabriel said.
"But there are also risks," he added, pointing to the danger that refugees may not integrate properly into German daily life if they do not receive language training.
Around 77 percent of asylum-seekers and war refugees are of working age, the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) said in a report last month.
Germany is enjoying record-low unemployment and says it will not need to raise taxes or sacrifice its balanced budget to deal with the biggest refugee influx since World War Two.
REFUGEES NOT WELCOMED ELSEWHERE IN EU
Other EU states, especially smaller ones in the east of the bloc, have cited higher joblessness and fears Muslim migrants might not integrate into their largely homogeneous societies in balking at calls to take in some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have streamed into Europe this year to escape wars and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
German trains-to-turbines group Siemens (SIEGn.DE) said last week that it was keen to admit refugees to its apprenticeship program and that it had taken on about 10 of them as interns at its campus in Erlangen, Bavaria, this year.
A rise in the working-age population thanks to immigration will help lift German economic growth by 1.7 percent by 2020, according to calculations by Unicredit economist Andreas Rees.
"This corresponds to an increase of around 50 billion euros compared to a scenario without extra immigration," he said, estimating that after 800,000 asylum applicants in 2015 a further 500,000 could come annually over the next few years.
However, whether the migrant influx into Europe will lead to an immediate boost to Germany's economy is a matter of dispute.
Labor Minister Andrea Nahles said on Thursday that not even one in 10 asylum seekers had the necessary qualifications to directly enter the labor market, and warned of higher unemployment. "Not everyone that is coming is highly qualified," she said. "The Syrian doctor is not the typical case."
In the mid-to-long term, however, the arrival of many young migrants could have a positive impact on government revenues by reducing demands on social security systems, Essen-based economic institute RWI said in its autumn forecast.
(Reporting by Caroline Copley, Paul Carrel, Holger Hansen and Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)