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German Unemployment Worst in Former East Germany

High unemployment may prompt angry German voters to change their government in elections expected in September. The jobless rate is worst in the former East Germany, where many companies were crushed by stronger competition that came with unification 15 years ago. One of those companies employed thousands of people to build a basic car called the Trabant. As VOA's Jim Randle reports, unemployment still plagues the Trabi's hometown.

The town of Zwickau has a church dating back to the1200s, a shopping mall that has been here for five years, and a tradition of building cars that goes back to 1904.

That tradition continues in Ralf Troger's intense, high technology class in automotive engineering at Zwickau's applied sciences university.

Students learn to use complex sensors and computers to test engines and solve problems.

But not one raises a hand when a visitor asks if any of them expect to find work here.

An economist with the German Employers' Federation that many people are leaving the east. Ottheinrich Freiherr von Weitershausen says the overall German economy is on the brink of recession and things are much worse in the former East Germany. "There is nothing, nothing, only some wood and sand, and people leaving their villages and the countryside really is bleeding out."

Economists say German unemployment recently hit its highest level since World War II, with five million people out of work. The situation has improved slightly, but the jobless rate is still over 11 percent nationwide and stands at 18 percent or higher here in the former East Germany.

Economists say East Germany's poorly equipped and maintained factories could not compete and millions of jobs were lost. Fifteen years after unification, problems in the east are still slowing German economic growth. But a few factories are opening with more modern equipment, and smaller work forces.

Zwickau is an example of this trend because it is home to the factory that once made the most famous industrial product in East German history - the Trabant automobile.

The Trabi has a plastic body and a smoking, two-cycle engine that sounds like a lawnmower, smokes like a chimney, and has a top speed of perhaps 100 kilometers per hour.

Twelve thousand people produced more than three million Trabants in a design that changed little over decades.

In East Germany's dysfunctional economy, drivers had few car choices and waited 10 years or longer to get a Trabant delivered.

The Trabi is such an East German icon that it is painted on a remnant of the Berlin wall

But when the Wall fell, reuniting Germany, no one wanted a Trabant any more and the factory closed, leaving thousands of people out of work.

One of them is Gerd Rudorf who made Trabis for 12 years, and liked working on engines in the factory. He found other work in a company that made parts, and later in this automobile museum at the old Trabant factory.

About half the ex-Trabi workers ended up making Volkswagens nearby in relatively new, efficient factories like this one. Other workers were retrained to do new work, some retired, and a few remain jobless.

Former Trabant welding manager Deitmar Scholze says government, business, unions, schools and other are working together to boost employment by setting up a network to sell the skills of the current workforce and upgrade workers' skills.

He leads a group that teaches current and prospective factory workers to program new computer-controlled equipment in classes at the old Trabant factory.

Gunther Schmalz is also a leader in the economic redevelopment effort. He says Germany must improve its business climate if it is to improve its economy, and that means lower taxes, less regulation, and a more flexible workforce.

His views are common in the business community, but controversial elsewhere and much of the election debate focuses on striking the right balance between helping business and protecting workers.

The Lord Mayor of Zwickau, Dietmar Vettermann, says things will get better. "I see a chance for unemployment to get better and politicians are working every day, and doing their best to make it better. There are no big illusions about it, but still, the optimism is there."

Meantime, engineers who developed the Trabant say West Germans are wrong to make fun of the little car. Werner Reichelt says East Germany could spare very little steel for private cars so he helped come up with a body made of cotton fiber and plastic resin that is strong enough to support 16 workers and does not rust.

And here in Zwickau thousands of people gather on a weekend to celebrate the humble Trabant.

Enthusiastic Trabi owners drive some cars and transform others into cement mixers, police cars, boats and other fanciful vehicles.

Zwickau residents show off their engineering skills, adaptability -- and sense of humor. As Germany struggles to recover and compete in a tough global economy, they are likely to need all of those traits.