The town of Neubrandenburg, a two-hour drive north of Berlin in the former communist east, had an unemployment rate of 13.8 percent in November according to figures published this week, twice as high as the national average.
But Heiko Mirass, head of the local labour agency office, insists: “The time of mass unemployment (of more than 20 percent) is behind us.”
However the lower jobless rate in this city of 70,000, where a handful of medieval buildings stand in the shadows of rundown housing blocks, is not the product of a recovery but rather of its ageing and shrinking population.
In the 20 years since national reunification, the city has lost one-third of its citizens due to a falling birth-rate and an exodus to the west in search of jobs.
Many of those who remain are no longer of working age and thus no longer counted as unemployed.
There is little sign of the “jobs miracle” frequently evoked by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in this notch of the East German rust belt.
More than one-third of those without work are over the age of 50 and more than one-quarter are long-term unemployed.
“We are witnessing a certain fossilisation of unemployment,” with little mobility for those trapped in joblessness, Mirass said.
Nearly 700 kilometres to the south, the wealthy Munich suburb Freising seems a world away with more demand for labour than available employees.
The jobless rate was 2.3 percent in November, the lowest in the country. It has held that title for more than a decade, said Karin Weber, Mirass’ counterpart in Freising.
She said Freising’s proximity to the international airport, Munich and the city of Ingolstadt, home of automaker Audi, as well as a network of booming small- and medium-sized companies kept the want-ad pages full.
Anyone who is registered as unemployed is truly “between jobs,” says Weber. Last month 1,500 people went on the dole while 1,800 found employment.
The labour market now looks stronger than before the economic crisis, which sparked Germany’s worst post-war recession with a contraction of nearly five percent last year.
“But that does not mean we have nothing to do,” said Michael Schmidt, operations director at the labour agency.
Challenges include getting older and handicapped workers into viable employment but Schmidt said it was possible that the jobless rate could sink even lower than 2.3 percent.
In Neubrandenburg, the labour agency does what it can to get older Germans working again.
At the training centre, seated in front of a blackboard, Elke Rödel scribbles in her notebook.
At 49, she aims to become a caregiver for the elderly. “It is difficult going back to school,” she sighs, confiding that her “dream” would be a permanent work contract.
Jens Junghaeel, out of work since March, has a better chance of getting back into the labour market than Rödel.
Wearing a blue shirt and a focused expression, the young man types away at a computer in his machine-tools programming class.
“I have worked for nine years, with interruptions. But always in the west. What I want is to work here,” he said.
In the area, the unemployment rate among 15 to 25 year olds has fallen steadily and is now at about 10 percent — ” a figure they could dream about in Spain,” Mirass said, where the jobless rate is hovering around 20 percent.