The German government is planning to introduce a work-visa programme for non-EU residents, similar to the US green card, to help recruit the highly skilled workers needed in its telecommunications and computer industry.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroder pledged the swift introduction of the new visas after IT industry experts complained that 75,000 positions in German computer and telecoms firms were unfilled. They called for permits to be issued to 30,000 young specialists from Eastern Europe and the Far East.
"If we cannot cover our shortfall by recruiting labour from abroad, then companies are going to move away," said Mr Schroder. But he said the accelerated work permit scheme could be started only on the condition that German industry increased its efforts to retrain unemployed Germans. About 60,000 German engineers from other sectors are out of work.
Education minister Edelgard Bulmahn heads a working group that met on March 9 to determine exactly how many specialists are needed in which sectors.
She said it is already clear that the expected numbers of German higher education graduates and trainees would not be enough to fill the gap. "We must act quickly," she said.
The first "green cards" could be issued by the summer, she predicted. It is so far unclear exactly who will benefit from the new visas, but they will be "mostly graduates and academics", a ministry spokesman said.
In Russia, the offer is most likely to interest specialists in big research centres in the provinces, where thousands of computer programmers are out of work. The plan has also been greeted with interest in India's booming computer software industry.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, head of the German employers' association BDI, said he would like the scheme to be widened to fill skills shortages in other German industries. There is a dramatic lack of qualified personnel in pharmaceuticals research, he said.
But the proposals were criticised by Germany's conservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria, which said they would lead to a long-lasting wave of immigration.