Refugees cannot be integrated without jobs — this certainty is shared by politicians, representatives of societal groups, and economic experts. Raimund Becker, for instance, a Member of the Executive Board of the German Federal Employment Agency, states: “Long-term social integration is only possible through labour market integration.” And Eric Schweitzer, President of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), is convinced that “training, qualification, and subsequent entry into a profession are the best prerequisites for integration.”
While there were fewer refugees during the first half of this year than during the year before due to the closure of the Balkan route, this does not change the fact that immigration presents a major challenge for society and the economy.
But social responsibility is not the only reason companies are pushing for rapid access to the labour market for asylum seekers. They also hope that immigration might alleviate the shortage of skilled workers they are facing. This skills shortage has long since been an issue not only in economically strong regions, but also in structurally weak areas. In the Employment Agency district Greifswald (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), for example, businesses are unable to fill one out of four training positions due to a lack of suitable applicants.
An opportunity for companies
Heinz Scheve, Executive Director of Deutsche TGS, which is part of Germany’s largest housing company Vonovia, explains: “We see immigration as a chance to attract new, motivated employees.” Vonovia is currently seeking numerous new employees, especially for skilled manual work, and the company would like to fill some of the vacancies with refugees. That’s why they have joined forces with the Jobcenter Gelsenkirchen, a partnership that has already led to several refugees being hired for construction work by Vonovia. The company intends to use this model in other cities, too. During this process, according to a Vonovia spokesperson, “the main challenges have been regulatory requirements,” such as the status of the asylum application and statutory waiting periods; other issues include a lack of language skills and driving licences.
Qualifications: a lack of data
Vonovia also advertises numerous jobs on the platform workeer.de, which was developed for refugees by Berlin students and offers traineeships and other positions in a variety of industries. It is not a coincidence that most of the advertisements on this website are for low-skilled work. The hopes of some that high-skilled workers would flock to Germany have not been fulfilled — even though the refugee population as a whole is by no means illiterate.
So far there is no representative data on the qualifications of refugees. A study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln), however, gives some pointers about the main country of origin, Syria. According to their research, in 2011, at the beginning of the civil war, 97 percent of children in the respective age cohort were enrolled in first grade. That same year, 15 to 20 percent of the post-secondary-school age group were enrolled at a university. “Many Syrian refugees have professional qualifications that can be put to use in Germany,” the study explains.
According to the IW Köln, in March 2016, 53,500 immigrants from the four main source countries (Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan) were working in jobs covered by social security; the skill level required in about half these positions was that of an assistant. On the other hand, 123,500 people from these four countries were registered as unemployed in May of this year. These numbers, however, appear more problematic than they actually are, according to the experts from the IW Köln. “We know from experience that labour market integration takes longer for refugees than for other immigrant groups.” Usually, they catch up after they have been in Germany for about 15 years.
Earlier phases of immigration may not be fully comparable with the current situation, however. The immigration waves of the 1960s and early 1970s consisted of guest workers from southern Europe who explicitly came to find work in the former West Germany. After 2000, it was mainly people from the old and new EU countries who found their way to Germany. Data from the ZBW Leibniz Information Centre for Economics shows that, as a result, the educational level of immigrants increased significantly: only 13 percent of immigrants had a university degree in the early 1990s, but between 2005 and 2009, the proportion rose to 37 percent.
Language skills as a challenge
The proportion of academics among refugees today is believed to be considerably smaller than among these earlier immigrants. Therefore, real estate companies are more cautious in their predictions about the opportunities for employment in jobs requiring higher qualifications. “Here at Bilfinger Real Estate, we have not yet targeted refugees for employment,” says Anne Tischer, Press Officer at Bilfinger Real Estate GmbH. “For the consultation and real estate management services that Bilfinger Real Estate offers its clients, we need specialists with degrees in real estate.” On the other hand, Bilfinger Scheven, a subsidiary company that specialises in pipeline construction, has filled two internship positions with Syrian refugees as part of the project Perspektiven für Flüchtlinge (perspectives for refugees), managed by the nonprofit Bildungswerk der Hessischen Wirtschaft e.V. Further internships are to follow.
At real estate service provider Strabag Property and Facility Services, the situation is similar. “At our industry services provider DIW, we already have employees from 30 different countries,” says company spokesperson Oliver Stumm. “It is therefore quite likely that refugees from Syria and Afghanistan will be part of our workforce in the future.” But he points to unsolved problems: sustainable employment is possible only once all residency issues have been resolved, and recognising foreign qualifications is often difficult as well. Bilfinger Press Officer Anne Tischer adds: “Language skills are especially important. That’s why we believe this to be one of government’s key tasks.”
Meanwhile, there are various organisations dedicated to improving the job prospects of new arrivals in Germany. The Federal Employment Agency, for instance, provided the funds for language courses that were attended by 222,000 refugees. And in early 2016, the DIHK launched the action programme Ankommen in Deutschland (arriving in Germany), which aims to document refugees’ competencies, help them with language acquisition, and advise companies on training refugees. “It is obvious that integration will require a major effort by all involved,” DIHK President Eric Schweitzer says. Nevertheless, “for those who are here and will remain here long-term, we both need to and want to integrate them as best as we can and offer them prospects.” The network Unternehmen integrieren Flüchtlinge (companies integrate refugees), founded by the DIHK together with the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, aims to help with that effort by providing companies with legal information and practical advice on integration.
Support for businesses
Joblinge – gemeinsam gegen Jugendarbeitslosigkeit, a charitable initiative to counter youth unemployment (www.joblinge.de) founded in 2007 by the Boston Consulting Group and the Eberhard von Kuenheim Foundation of the BMW AG, works specifically to help refugees gain better qualifications. “Work has become a key factor for integration — it is essential for one’s own dignity and financial independence, for acceptance and participation in society,” it says on Joblinge’s website. To that end, the initiative wants to support businesses who hire employees with a refugee background.
In the spring of 2016, Joblinge launched a pilot project in Munich and Hamburg, titled Joblinge Kompass. It is aimed at young people between the ages of 18 and 25 with low or medium-level qualifications who are new to Germany and very likely to remain there. The programme helps them acquire language skills for their jobs and assists them with bureaucratic procedures and the recognition of their qualifications. The goal is to place these young people in a job or training programme as quickly as possible. Over the next few months, Joblinge wants to extend the programme to additional cities. Other companies, including real estate companies, are invited to take part.
Indeed, it seems that many businesses are happy to participate in such efforts. According to a survey among 540 human resources managers conducted in the spring of 2016 by the IW Köln, companies are generally willing to hire refugees. However, only eight percent of the surveyed companies actually employ refugees at the moment. Integrating refugees into the labour market will require perseverance, says Ingo Kramer, President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA). “The path that lies before all of us will be difficult and rocky, but definitely rewarding. And in 20 years we will look back and say: we were committed and realistic, and we seized the opportunities as best we could.”