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Unemployment in Germany, Sweden

STOCKHOLM, Jan 28 – Lars Axelsson lost his job last August as a member of Swedish airline SAS\’s ground staff, but now the 43-year-old is becoming a train driver instead.

Axelsson is being trained by TRR, a body run by employers and trade unions specialised in career transition that appoints a "coach" to someone who has been laid off to ensure that they can return to work.

The TRR is just one of the ways in which European countries are trying to ensure that although they are heading for their worst recessions for decades, it does not have to be accompanied by a return to mass unemployment.

Sweden\’s employment agency, the Arbetsfoermedlingen or AF, has on its website a list of more than 1,000 jobs in 200 different industries, giving people a good idea of what skills are in demand that they can then learn.

And this is not voluntary — people are obliged to accept what they are offered, even if that means upping sticks and moving to another part of the country.

"We can make someone accept a training course or a job," says Ann Steenberg from the AF.

Another place making great strides is Germany, Europe\’s biggest economy.

Long derided as the "sick man of Europe", it has remained the world\’s largest exporter while other old European powers have been forced by stiff Asian competition to transform themselves into services-based economies.

In doing so it has kept and even created jobs in manufacturing.

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But with the world economy hitting the skids, firms in the European Union\’s most populous country have seen their order books get alarmingly thin in recent months.

Berlin predicted last week that exports would dive almost nine percent in 2009, reducing Germany\’s economic output by 2.25 percent — its steepest slowdown since after World War II — second only to Ireland in the eurozone.

But in terms of unemployment, Germany is faring much better.

The European Commission believes that at 7.7 percent, Germany\’s jobless rate will be considerably better in 2009 than the average of 9.3 percent predicted for the 16 countries using the euro and the 8.7 percent for the 27-strong EU.

Other European countries are pulling out all the stops to persuade firms to keep workers on, for example by cutting social security payments, or have attempted to boost the economy with grandiose infrastructure projects.

But according to Goettingen University\’s Peter Bartelheimer, Germany\’s homework in recent years has made its labour market more resistant to the global downturn than many of its EU partners.

Bosch, for example, the privately owned auto parts giant which must be reeling from the problems of the global automotive industry, is yet to lay off a single worker with a permanent contract.

The Stuttgart-based firm uses time-savings accounts, a mechanism allowing an employee to store up overtime hours in busy periods and then work less — at Bosch as little as 20 hours a week — when business is slack.

Also helping is that fact that Berlin extended in December to 18 months from 12 months the period during which the government will pay a proportion of a worker\’s salary if an employer has to halt production temporarily.

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This means that firms do not have to lay off workers and then go through the expensive and time-consuming process of re-hiring them when conditions pick up. It also stops the national jobless rate from rising.

And as well as providing workers with added security, government-sponsored schemes allow them to receive new training while the conveyor belts are idle.

Numerous firms have taken advantage of this in recent weeks. Figures for November showed 164,000 workers were covered, up a massive 107,000 from October, and experts reckon this will rise to over 200,000 this year.

"Unemployment is definitely going to rise, but not as much as it would have done without these measures," says Eugen Spitznagel from the IAB economic institute.

Lars in Sweden is a happy man, meanwhile, saying the help he got was "amazing".

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