From Brain Drain and Brain Gain to Brain Circulation: Towards a More Social Europe

by Kathleen Beger and Ulf Brunnbauer

Weak economies and a lack of professional prospects have had a significant impact on migration movement from Central and (South)East European countries to Germany over the past two decades. The EU Eastern Enlargement in 2004, 2007 and 2013, together with the freedom of movement in the EU, as well as visa liberalisation for non-EU countries, and programmes implemented by Germany to facilitate the immigration of skilled workers from third countries have accelerated this process. Thus, between 2015 and 2021, a net total of more than 1.1 million people from the Danube region — Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine1 — moved to Germany.2 For some of these countries, emigration has become a major drag on their economic performance because of the ensuing lack of especially skilled labour. For Germany’s economy, however, immigration has become an important source of economic growth.

The city of Regensburg, home of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS), located at the northernmost point of the Danube, is a case in point. Since 2000, the number of foreign nationals from this region has more than doubled, from 4,250 to 10,460 in 2021 (fig. 1 and 2). They constitute almost seven percent of Regensburg’s population and half of the foreigners living in the city.

The fastest growing migrant groups are Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, and Croats. While in 2000, only 379 Romanian, 150 Bulgarian, 178 Hungarian and 473 Croatian citizens resided in Regensburg, their official numbers had increased to 2,590 Romanian, 2,090 Bulgarian, 860 Hungarian, and 1,230 Croatian citizens by 2021 (fig. 3).3 This development nicely reflects the importance of freedom of movement in the EU, which Germany granted to the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania only ten years after the accession of these countries to the EU.

Similar observations can be made for the Regensburg district (Landkreis), which had 2,133 migrants from the Danube region in 2000, compared to 9,015 migrants in 2021 (fig. 4 and 5).

Here, too, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, and Croats are the most rapidly increasing migrant groups from this region (fig. 6).

These people are primarily attracted by the city’s fast-growing economy and help to sustain its growth by filling job vacancies. Regensburg benefits from “brain gain”. Yet, their departure has negative consequences for their region of origin, in the form of “brain drain” and a loss of labour at a time when the economies in Central and (South)East Europe have also been expanding. Brain drain, i.e., the emigration of (highly) qualified persons, has a huge socio-economic impact. It reduces human capital stocks and therefore impedes innovation and hampers economic growth. It contributes to an aging population and leads to higher costs for public goods for the country of origin. These dynamics are well known. So, what can cities do to mitigate their effects?

As a research partner in the Interreg Danube Transnational Programme funded project “TalentMagnet”, the IOS undertook to investigate these dynamics. To this end, we examined statistical data and consulted recent literature on migration. Besides this, we have also commissioned the Institute for Social Science Consulting (ISOB), Regensburg, to conduct a qualitative survey based on interviews with migrants from the Danube countries and with returnees. We were interested in the migration biographies, motives, expectations, and experiences of young, talented people from Central and (South)East Europe in Regensburg. What were the concrete reasons why they decided to leave their home country, how do they view their living and working conditions in Regensburg, under what conditions would they be willing to return, what recommendations do they have for their communities and countries of origin to retain talent, and what links do they have to their hometowns that can facilitate the circulation of skills and knowledge? These were some of the questions we asked them.

The article will begin by presenting a general overview of current migration from the Danube region to Regensburg, Bavaria, and Germany, and its effects on the labour market. In the second part of the article, we will discuss the young migrants’ perspectives and in the third part, we will formulate policy proposals.

Filling the gaps in the domestic labour market

As recent research on EU enlargement and migration has revealed, immigrants from Eastern and (South)East Europe are labour market oriented. The vast majority had already received a job offer before they left their countries of origin. However, as Luisa Hammer and Matthias S. Hertweck emphasize, newly arrived migrants “perform more often ‘un or semi-skilled work’” work — regardless of their educational and/or vocational levels.4 They typically “take up jobs below their qualification levels acquired abroad as their imported human capital is valued less in the host country” and, thus, “suffer from a substantial wage gap relative to German nationals”.5 This “immigrant downgrading” is mostly attributed to a lack of the necessary language skills and smaller social networks.6 German nationals and permanent foreign nationals, in contrast, predominantly perform skilled work; those who are in semi-skilled or unskilled work usually lack education and/or vocational training.7

Although the wage gap gradually decreases over the course of five years, temporary, seasonal, and return migration are very common among recent EU immigrants.8 This especially applies to those whose first career year(s) in Germany are unsatisfactory and to those who suffer from a huge wage gap (of more than 45 percent) relative to German and permanent foreign nationals. Therefore, Hammer and Hertweck conclude, “31% (47%) of all newly arrived EU immigrants have left Germany again by the beginning of the next (but one) calendar year”.9 In 2021, for instance, 157,780 Romanians, 60,091 Bulgarians, 23,760 Croatians and 22,959 Hungarians immigrated to Germany, but 105,979 Romanians, 37,118 Bulgarians, 15,971 Croatians and 18,574 Hungarians also left the country in the same year.10 Nevertheless, examining the average length of stay of migrants from the Danube region in Bavaria reveals significant differences. As Figure 7 shows, Austrians, Slovenians, Serbians, and Bosnians stay the longest, while Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Slovaks have the shortest stays, indicating different employment patterns and different levels of satisfaction.

Compared to 2010, the picture is rather similar (fig. 8). The only striking case is Croatians, whose average length of stay in Bavaria has significantly decreased since then (from approximately 26 years to 18 years).11

Although it is impossible to discern exact reasons and explanations for these differences, they may, at least partly, indicate that Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Slovaks perform mostly temporary or seasonal semi-skilled or unskilled work. Another difference can be found in the average age of migrants. In 2021, the average age, for instance, of Romanians and Bulgarians in Bavaria was approximately 33 and 34, respectively, while that of Austrians and Slovenians was approximately 52 and 45, respectively (fig. 9). This has little changed since 2010 (fig. 10), suggesting that the underlying differences in the migration patterns remained the same.

Furthermore, the fear that the freedom of movement within the EU and, with this, immigration from the new Central and (South)East European Member States, would have crowding out effects on German or permanent foreign nationals proved to be unfounded. Admittedly, the share of migrants from the Danube region in the labour market increased over the last ten years, in Bavaria from 2.8 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2021 and in Germany as a whole from 1.5 to 3.9 percent, respectively (figures 11 and 12).12 Yet, unemployment in Germany decreased in the same period. The effect on wage levels is also small. Recent research has concluded that EU immigration only has a “transitory negative effect on the wage level, which remains significant for about five years”.13 Moreover, these effects are felt almost exclusively by German and permanent foreign nationals who belong to the lowest two wage deciles. In general, EU immigration triggers a permanent positive employment effect among both German and permanent foreign nationals as it creates new “(full-time) jobs, complementary to those (rather low-paid) jobs found by recent immigrants”.14

The labour market in Regensburg

Impressive as Regensburg’s immigration from the Danube countries might be, both the city and the district still face a shortage of skilled workers. In 2022, the economy in the Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz) administrative region (Regierungsbezirk) with Regensburg as its centre, including the district Kelheim, will be short of around 13,000 skilled workers. As a result, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (Industrie- und Handelskammer, IHK) for the district of Oberpfalz-Kelheim predicts a cumulative (gross) loss to the amount of 1.18 billion euros for the regional economy between 2022 and 2025. In absolute terms, there is a shortage of qualified specialists in technical research, development, construction and production control, mechanical and automotive engineering, as well as in education and social and domestic occupations. Regional companies’ future demand for skilled workers is largely based on those with vocational qualifications. For the year 2030, the IHK Skilled Workers Monitor forecasts a shortfall of 56,000 qualified employees in the region.15
Against this background, the question is what can be done to mitigate both the shortage of skilled workers in Regensburg and the brain drain from Central and (South)East Europe?

Young migrants’ experiences and views

To try and answer this question, IOS commissioned ISOB to carry out a qualitative survey among 38 individuals from the Danube region, aged predominantly between 18 and 35, who either currently live or have lived in the city and district of Regensburg. Among them were 30 immigrants and 8 returnees or internal migrants, i.e., people who moved on to other cities in Germany. A total of 25 respondents were female and 13 were male. In terms of countries of origin, 2 respondents came from Austria, 2 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 3 from Bulgaria, 4 from Croatia, 6 from the Czech Republic, 4 from Hungary, 8 from Romania, 3 from Serbia, 1 from Slovakia, 1 from Slovenia, and 4 from Ukraine. The interviewees were asked to complete a semi-structured questionnaire comprising more than 30 questions. We were particularly interested in their responses to the following questions:

  • Why do young talents move to Regensburg? What motives, both material and immaterial, are behind their decision? What part did role models or existing networks play in their decision?
  • How do they rate their working and living conditions in Regensburg compared to those in their country or place of origin? How do they view their arrival and integration? Can they use their qualifications here, do they think they have any prospects in Regensburg?
  • What factors, conditions and prerequisites would have to be in place for them to decide to return to their country or place of origin? Or are they planning to move to another place and, if so, why?
  • Are the migrants in contact people in their place of origin, especially beyond the circles of family and friends? Are they aware of programmes in their country or place of origin which encourage return? If so, how do they view them?

Most of the respondents had chosen Regensburg as a place to live and work because of educational (19 mentions), economic (19) or social (14) reasons. In the latter category, family reunification was a particularly important reason. All respondents have at least completed a secondary school (equivalent to the German Abitur) as well as a professional qualification or a university degree. A total of 20 migrants hold a master’s degree, 13 a bachelor’s degree and 5 a PhD.

Of the respondents, 12 are currently studying in Regensburg. A total of 3 of the 8 returnees had studied in Regensburg. Altogether, 27 migrants currently work in Regensburg. All returnees had worked in Regensburg. This shows that most of the interviewees are (or were) well integrated in Regensburg’s education system and the labour market.

Job satisfaction

The survey participants reported being largely satisfied with the jobs they perform in Regensburg. A total of 25 of the 38 respondents commented on this aspect. Of these 23 were very satisfied, 2 interviewees were relatively satisfied and another 2 reporting being rather dissatisfied. The match between qualifications and the work performed was also rated highly. Overall, 21 interviewees considered it very satisfactory, 2 were relatively satisfied with it and 3 were rather dissatisfied. Only 13 respondents commented on their income. Of these, 6 reported being very satisfied, 2 were relatively satisfied, 3 rather dissatisfied and another 2 interviewees stated that they were very dissatisfied with their salaries.

Satisfaction with life

Concerning life in Regensburg, most participants (27 people) reported being very satisfied with their social contacts and integration into the city’s fabric. Given the large number of respondents commenting on this issue, social integration appears to be a particularly important aspect of migrants’ lives. When it came to other aspects pertaining to quality of life in Regensburg, participants most frequently referred to cultural, sports and leisure activities (24 mentions) as well as local recreation, green spaces, parks, environmental protection, and nature conservation (17) as being important. Of the respondents, 18 said they were very satisfied with the cultural and leisure activities on offer, 4 were rather satisfied and 2 rather dissatisfied with these services. Regarding opportunities for local recreation, green spaces, parks, the environment, and nature conservation, 14 participants reported being very satisfied, 2 were relatively satisfied and 1 rather dissatisfied. It is also worth mentioning respondents’ views on the housing market and their personal housing situation: 5 were very satisfied, 2 reported being relatively satisfied and 4 rather dissatisfied.

The participants made a variety of suggestions for improving the quality of life in Regensburg, including, in particular, more affordable housing (11 mentions), more cultural, sports and leisure facilities (10), and also more facilities for young families (3).

The main reasons participants left Regensburg were of a social or economic nature (14 mentions each).

Contact with the country of origin

An overwhelming majority of 37 of the 38 interviewees had become part of a network of people from their country of origin living in Regensburg, including 13 people who were members of a migrant association which maintains contact with the country of origin.

When asked what their countries of origin would need to do to attract, retain or encourage young talents to return, most respondents (25 people) said that it would be desirable to create better quality job opportunities with higher wages and a functioning labour market. Another 16 participants suggested creating better opportunities for personal development, education, and lifelong learning. In addition, a total of 8 people would like to see an improvement in the political situation in their countries of origin (n = 4) and a better health and social system with less corruption (n = 4). The latter 8 respondents come from non-EU countries or from the newer EU Member States Bulgaria and Romania.

A total of 30 respondents reported wanting to maintain contact with their country of origin through measures initiated by the respective country. Another 8 would like to maintain contact with the country of origin through other channels (e.g., through migrant associations or personal networks). The respondents proposed creating exchange formats, establishing networks, providing information about job vacancies and introducing support measures for returnees, such as offering housing and providing day-care and school places. This highlights a lot of readiness among migrants to engage with their home-country and to contribute to its development. Yet, the homeland governments – from the national to the local level – apparently do not fully use this potential.

What can be done in Regensburg?

As generally revealed by the survey, mobility is a normal part of the life course for young talented people from the Danube region. Conversely, however, this also means that Regensburg must undertake efforts if it wants to remain an attractive destination for skilled workers from abroad.

To determine what measures could be taken to improve the quality of life and work for young migrants from Central and (South)East Europe in Regensburg as well as to reduce the one-way brain drain and brain gain and to achieve a better “brain circulation” instead, a distinction needs to be drawn between measures at the local/regional, national, and European level.

At the local/regional level, Regensburg should, first of all, improve its “welcoming culture” (Wilkommenskultur). This includes, for instance, creating a network for newcomers from abroad as well as simplifying and digitising the administration and communication between the city and its citizens, especially in government offices. Another urgent issue is the housing market as Regensburg has a shortage of affordable housing. Furthermore, the respondents stressed that the city should provide more pre-school (Kindergarten) places and create more leisure and cultural facilities for both children and adults. Last but not least, the interviewees described the urban public transport system as too expensive, criticised the reduced weekend timetable, and were clearly in favour of developing an urban rail system (Stadtbahn) to prevent traffic jams and delays.

At the national level, better income opportunities should be created, especially for professions in the social and educational field. In addition to this, recognition of foreign qualifications should be made easier, particularly for people from non-EU countries. For instance, one of the survey’s interviewees who holds a teaching degree is not allowed to teach in schools, despite the fact that Regensburg has a shortage of schoolteachers. Instead, he is only allowed to work as a nursery schoolteacher or a childcare worker. As a consequence, he has already considered moving to Switzerland, where he may work as a schoolteacher after completing an additional course of study — an opportunity that Germany does not provide. If the German government does not improve working conditions for social and educational professions, simplify the recognition of foreign qualifications and encourage people from abroad to undertake an additional course of study, if necessary, the shortage of skilled workers in these key sectors will be further compounded.

At the European level, the EU Commission and Parliament should create new rules providing for more flexible working conditions and opportunities to work from home in a different country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home became the new normal for much of the working world. Some countries, such as Estonia, have launched special campaigns to attract so-called “working nomads”. However, the legal framework for working from home from abroad for longer periods often remains unclear. First and foremost, clear rules are needed for social insurance contributions and corporate income taxes. Nevertheless, home office from abroad could hold the greatest potential for a better brain circulation between EU and non-EU countries. As some of the survey’s respondents suggested, the possibility of working for a German employer from Bulgaria or Croatia, at least for a certain time, could be extremely valuable. If integrated into exchange formats and binational/international networks, these individuals could act as “bridge builders” between Regensburg (and Germany) and their cities (countries) of origin and facilitate the transfer of knowledge, from which both sides can benefit. Experience gained abroad and exchanged between two or more countries plays an important role for these countries’ economies. It can contribute to changes in personal attitudes and value systems, develop new work ethics, knowledge and skills, create new lifestyles and attitudes towards consumption and, in so doing, create new demand and jobs.16

In summary, the issue of brain drain, brain gain and brain circulation needs to be addressed holistically, at all levels, supported by local, regional and national governments and agencies, as well as by the EU institutions.

List of figures

Fig. 1: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 03.06.2022 / 12:19:50

Fig. 2: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 03.06.2022 / 12:19:50

Fig. 3: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 03.06.2022 / 12:19:50

Fig. 4: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 22.09.2022 / 12:45:31

Fig. 5: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 22.09.2022 / 12:45:31

Fig. 6: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 14.09.2022 / 11:19:40

Fig. 7: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 24.11.2022 / 10:27:07

Fig. 8: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 24.11.2022 / 10:27:07

Fig. 9: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 24.11.2022 / 10:24:49

Fig. 10: © Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | Last accessed: 24.11.2022 / 10:24:49

Fig. 11: https://statistik.arbeitsagentur.de/DE/Navigation/Statistiken/Interaktive-Statistiken/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht-Nav.html (last accessed 28.11.2022)

Fig. 12: https://statistik.arbeitsagentur.de/DE/Navigation/Statistiken/Interaktive-Statistiken/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht-Nav.html (last accessed 28.11.2022)

  1. All data related to Ukraine refers to the time before Russia launched its war on 24 February 2022. []
  2. Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2022 | 24.11.2022 / 10:32:57 (The exact number is 1.130.890). It is not specified whether these people arrived in Germany from their countries of origin or from other countries. []
  3. As so often with migration statistics, we can assume that the actual numbers might be even higher because some people do not bother to register []
  4. Luisa Hammer, Matthias S. Hertweck: EU enlargement and (temporary) migration: Effects on labour market outcomes in Germany. Discussion Paper. Deutsche Bundesbank. No 02/2022, p. 7. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Ibid., p. 8. On temporary, circular and seasonal labour migration patterns, see also Godfried Engbersen, et al.: Introduction Working out a way from East to West: EU enlargement and labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe. In: Richard Black, Godfried Engbersen, Marek Okólski and Cristina Panţîru (eds.): A Continent Moving West? EU enlargement and labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe. Amsterdam University Press, 2010, pp. 7¬–22. []
  9. Hammer, Hertweck: EU enlargement and (temporary) migration, p. 9. []
  10. Graf, Johannes: Freizügigkeitsmonitoring: Migration von EU-Staatsangehörigen nach Deutschland. Jahresbericht 2021. Berichtsreihen zu Migration und Integration, Reihe 2. Nürnberg: Forschungszentrum Migration, Integration und Asyl des Bundesamts für Migration und Flüchtlinge. p. 6, 10. Online at: https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Forschung/BerichtsreihenMigrationIntegration/Freizuegigkeitsmonitoring/freizuegigkeitsmonitoring-jahresbericht-2021.html []
  11. This might be an effect of the changing composition of Croatian migrants, where the older generation can trace its roots back to the Gastarbeiter and wartime migration and are becoming naturalized, whereas the newer one has arrived only after Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2013, with a hiatus in-between. []
  12. https://statistik.arbeitsagentur.de/DE/Navigation/Statistiken/Interaktive-Statistiken/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht/Migration-Zuwanderung-Flucht-Nav.html (29.11.2022, 17:30), „Beschäftigte“ angesehen. Hammer, Hertweck: EU enlargement and (temporary) migration, p. 25. []
  13. Hammer, Hertweck: EU enlargement and (temporary) migration, p. 25. []
  14. Ibid., p. 22, 25. []
  15. IHK Regensburg für Oberpfalz / Kelheim: Fachkräfte-Report 2022. Ergebnisse für den IHK Bezirk Oberpfalz-Kelheim, p. 1, 4. Online at: https://www.ihk.de/blueprint/servlet/resource/blob/5626998/9bebd26207b1e5f4c3c3dd447ed7776b/fachkraefte-report-2022-data.pdf []
  16. Godfried Engbersen, Marek Okólski, Richard Black and Cristina Panţîru: Introduction Working out a way from East to West: EU enlargement and labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe, in: Richard Black, Godfried Engbersen, Marek Okólski and Cristina Panţîru (eds.): A Continent Moving West? EU enlargement and labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe. Amsterdam University Press, 2010, P. 17 []

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