Despite Slowdown, German Unemployment Falls

Despite continued signs of an economic slowdown across much of Europe, Germany's economy continues to chug along — and add jobs. Unemployment in September fell to the lowest level since reunification. There may be angst over more bailouts, but German firms continue to hire new people. That's in sharp contrast to the country's struggling, debt-burdened eurozone friends in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. They're even hiring in Berlin, notorious for its cadre of career jobless. A mini high-tech boom is leading the way in the German capital.

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One other important note about Germany, the country has a shortage of skilled labor and a million jobs to fill. Despite the debt crisis affecting much of Europe, the number of Germans without jobs continues to fall. The story is the same even in Berlin, which is notorious for having the country's highest unemployment rate.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports on one reason for all of this.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: America's unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high, above 9 percent for three straight months. In contrast, in Germany, unemployment is at its lowest level in more than 20 years.

MADELEINE VON MOHL: This guy is doing SEO, Search Engine Optimization and then this guy over here, he just got a new company together with a guy from Sweden. The man over there is a team working on mobile apps research.

WESTERVELT: Madeleine von Mohl is one of the founders of Betahaus, a sprawling co-working facility, as it's called. The company rents out space in a non-traditional shared office environment. Here, Web and graphic designers, software developers, entrepreneurs, startups and many others get space and a high-speed Internet connection and the ability to work semi-collaboratively with others in similar fields.

MOHL: Berlin is the perfect space for startups because it's cheap, it's creative and you have everything that you need here.

WESTERVELT: The city of Berlin offers almost no help for tax startups, except reams of bureaucracy efficiently delivered. There are no welcome packages or pro-bono help from city or federal agencies. Betahaus, in many ways, has helped fill that void. In addition to an open space office, they offer regular workshops for startups as well as some free, if limited, legal, technical, administrative and public relations assistance. Von Mohl helped start the company in early 2009 when the last economic crisis was still ricocheting throughout Europe.

MOHL: The bank said, you're crazy. The investors we were talking to, they said, oh, we don't think this is going to work. The House owner said you are crazy, but they said, but we like you and we will give it for you for just three months and you can test it out.

WESTERVELT: That was over two years ago. Betahaus has since opened new co-working businesses in Cologne and Hamburg. New ones are coming soon to Barcelona and Sophia, Bulgaria and negotiations are underway to open one in debt-rattled Lisbon. These days, von Mohl says corporate giants are coming to them asking for advice and offering to collaborate.

MOHL: We have all the big companies coming in and they come with their people and say, hey, how can you provide a space where people freely motivated work highly creative and with no facility, how do you do that? I mean, Daimler has money and facility, has everything, but the creative people don't like to stay there.

WESTERVELT: There are, however, economic warning signs ahead Germany. Figures show growth here almost ground to a halt in the second quarter and there is huge concern the debt troubles of Greece will spread and eventually balloon into a global banking crisis.

Web developer Karim Bouchouchi was among the first to rent space at Betahaus. He never left. He's currently developing an iPad app for auto giant Daimler. He says he prefers the freedom and community feel of this place to some corporate cubicle. Drawing on his experience in Betahaus's co-working environment, where advice and help are often a few steps away, Bouchouchi hopes Europe can find a similar way out.

KARIM BOUCHOUCHI: Like the people here in Betahaus work with each other, we should work - Germany should work more with Greece and with other partners in Europe.

WESTERVELT: You need each other.

KAREEM BOUCHOUCHI: The idea, yeah. Betahaus shows them. It shows that we need each other even if somebody is suffering a little problem right now, I could help him if I have money to spend. Why not?

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

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