Rx for Prosperity German Companies See Refugees as Opportunity

The German business community views the recent influx of refugees as an opportunity to help companies grow and ensure long-term prosperity. Many are calling for bureaucratic red tape to be lifted so that new arrivals can enter the labor market faster.

By , Carolin Katschak and Georg Ruppert

Jörg Glaescher/ DER SPIEGEL

Said Hashimi is sweating. He has already spent two hours reorganizing the storage room next to the office, assembling metal cabinets and moving boxes in an out of the room.

The 18-year-old from Afghanistan has been in an apprenticeship program for about a year now to become a plumbing and heating installer with Heizung-Obermeier, a heating installation company located in Munich's historic city center. The work is never boring, he says. "I like my coworkers, and I often work on construction sites."

He completed a long journey to arrive where he is today.

Hashimi is the eldest of four children. His father died in the war in Afghanistan. When he was 15, Hashimi fled from Jalalabad in northeast Afghanistan and embarked on a five-month journey to Munich. He flew from Kabul to Tehran, and from there, he traveled on foot or by bus through Turkey, Greece and Italy before reaching Germany. Sometimes he was part of a group and sometimes he was alone. He completed a journey of more than 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles) -- without his family.

After arriving in Munich, he received assistance from the local youth welfare office. As a foreigner, it was difficult at first to find his bearings. "I couldn't understand anyone," says Hashimi, who now speaks German almost fluently. After graduating from lower secondary school with a high grade point average, he completed a traineeship as an auto painter, and then a second traineeship at Heizung-Obermeier, where he was given an important opportunity last year. "If he wants to, he can also complete the work here he needs to become a foreman," says business owner Olaf Zimmermann.

'All Skin Colors Are Welcome'

Two years ago, Zimmermann noticed that it was becoming more and more difficult to find skilled personnel. He already employed people from other countries at the time. "We've had employees from all over Europe. All skin colors are welcome," says Zimmermann. "The focus is on the work. Everything else is unimportant."

Zimmermann, who currently employs two immigrants, says that the problems he encounters are with the German bureaucracy. He doesn't know, for example, whether Hashimi will be allowed to stay in Germany once he completes his apprenticeship.

Hashimi is one of thousands of children who become stranded in Germany year after year, often sent by their parents, in the hope that they will find a better life, get a good education and be better prepared for the future. They numbered an estimated 5,000 in 2013, and more than 10,000 last year. Their numbers are rising, along with the overall figures for asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees. The German government is expecting up to 800,000 asylum-seekers this year alone.

The massive influx of foreigners creates immense challenges for society. Many local authorities are overwhelmed, and refugee hostels, temporary housing and tent cities are overcrowded. The social welfare system and government budgets are faced with billions in additional costs.

A Silver Lining for Germany?

But the influx also provides opportunities for the German economy. Despite the official unemployment figure of almost 2.8 million, the business community urgently needs workers. And every refugee or migrant who finds work becomes less of a drain on the public coffers. The German economy is dependent on immigration, both from Europe as well as people entering the country due to asylum rights in Germany. With the German population shrinking, businesses are unable to fill many jobs, and specialized workers are increasingly rare. This trend will only be exacerbated in the coming years. It's a development that jeopardizes the country's future prosperity.

The fact is that Germany has been a country of immigration since the mid-1960s, when the number of guest workers passed the 1-million mark. Nevertheless, the country still lacks a modern immigration law. Germany is, however, starting to recognize that it must avail itself of the skills of those already in the country. In recent months, the government has repeatedly amended ordinances and legal provisions to facilitate the integration of asylum-seekers and refugees into the labor market.

Nevertheless, it is often merely a coincidence when people like Jacob Sousani find work. In Damascus, the Syrian native had a hair salon, five employees, a 70-square-meter (750-square-foot) apartment, a car and social status.

All that remains of his former life is a back injury from a bomb attack.

Sousani fled from the Syrian civil war. His five-month odyssey took him through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Italy until he finally arrived in Dresden. His father and two of his brothers stayed in Damascus. Sousani doesn't want to talk about what happened to the rest of his siblings.

A Growing Labor Shortage

It is a busy Thursday evening in the small hair salon where he works today, Director's Cut in Dresden's trendy Neustadt neighborhood. A man with bushy, black eyebrows, he is standing at one of the hairdresser's chairs, meticulously applying blonde hair dye to a customer's roots. He has been working in the salon for more than a month and has lived in Germany for the last year. "It's a famous salon," says Sousani.

He found a new home, an apartment and work in Dresden. "I didn't think anyone would ever hire me," says Sousani. But the 31-year-old was lucky, when a neighbor, who is also from Syria, told owner Christoph Steinigen about Sousani. After a trial week, Steinigen offered him a job. Sousani now works 20 hours a week and attends a language school to learn German in the mornings. He answered 80 percent of the questions correctly in the last test he took there. "He's really good," says Steinigen. "My only criticism is that his cuts could be a little more modern."

The hairdressing business isn't the only industry with a shortage of qualified workers. There are currently close to 46 million people of working age in Germany, who are theoretically capable of working. Without immigration, that number will decline to less than 29 million in about 30 years. Even if the retirement age were raised to 70 and the number of women and men in the workforce were equal, the total workforce would only increase by 4.4 million people.

Graphic: The German Labor Market

Graphic: The German Labor Market

A smaller workforce translates into fewer people paying into the pension fund and health insurance systems, fewer people consuming and producing goods, and fewer people paying taxes to pay for expenses like schools and road construction. Fewer people also translates into a reduced potential for growth and less affluence.

Of course, in light of technological development and the digitization of life, it is difficult to predict future workforce requirements. Nevertheless, a study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation concluded, in every scenario it examined, that there is no getting around immigration. "If net immigration declines significantly, the aging of society will create intractable problems for the social security systems and the national budget," says Lutz Schneider of the Coburg University of Applied Sciences, who examined the consequences of immigration for the Bertelsmann Foundation.

The German Ailment

Germany will be unable to fulfill its needs through the European labor market, which allows the free movement of workers within the EU, alone. For now, most immigrants still come from European Union countries, and numbers have been especially high in recent years because of the EU's eastward expansion and the economic crisis in Southern Europe. But this situation will not continue forever.

"As the crisis-ridden countries see their economies recover, immigration from EU countries will decline in the medium term," says Schneider. In addition, all European countries are suffering from the German ailment, namely that their populations are shrinking and aging. Economist Schneider predicts that the average annual number of immigrants from EU countries will decline to 70,000 by 2050. "This is why we will be even more dependent on people from third countries immigrating to Germany for work in the future, people who now come to Germany primarily as refugees," says Schneider.

Germany needs more than just highly qualified academics. It also needs trained individuals with moderate to minimal qualifications. About a million jobs have been created for foreigners in the last four years in fields requiring no formal training: supporting staff in nursing care, restaurants and agriculture. The number of unfilled positions is constantly rising and was close to 600,000 in July.

The skilled trades have already started recruiting refugees and migrants. When Christoph Karmann is not sitting in his office in downtown Munich, he is visiting vocational schools, where he encounters young migrants with many questions. What can I do, they ask? What opportunities will I have? How does the vocational training system work in Germany?

As one of two so-called training canvassers with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Munich and Upper Bavaria, Karmann places refugees and migrants in companies with training programs. Bavarian skilled manual labor enterprises are urgently in need of trainees and workers. This spring, the chamber of trade wrote to 7,000 businesses in Upper Bavaria to ask whether they would hire a refugee. In response, it received offers for 1,200 internship and traineeship positions.

To combat the shortage of skilled personnel, companies and trade associations are urging policymakers to at least better utilize the potential of refugees and migrants living in Germany. Daimler was the first major corporation to appeal to lawmakers to allow refugees to begin working after one month in the country.

"It's a waste of valuable time for asylum-seekers to be condemned to idleness during their asylum proceedings," says Ingo Kramer. The president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) says that rules should be changed so that asylum-seekers and migrants not threatened with immediate deportation are given faster access to the labor market.

'Early Intervention'

The Federal Employment Agency's "Early Intervention" model project, designed to integrate refugees and migrants into the labor market as early as possible, has been underway since the beginning of 2014. The goal of the project is to determine which additional competencies, tools and resources it needs to perform its work as effectively as possible. Talent scouts in 12 locations identify well-trained refugees and try to place them in businesses.

Hannegret Deppe is sitting in her office at the employment agency in Detmold in northwestern Germany near Bielefeld. Today she has two appointments with clients, as refugees are referred to at the agency. Branko Nastasic, whose name has been changed by the editors to protect his privacy, is from Serbia, where he managed a café and was also a construction worker.

Deppe walks Nastasic through a computer program, step by step. He knows how to install drywall, but not how to put in windows or do electrical work. Deppe uses the program to identify the right employer for her clients. She also assists refugees and migrants in applying for jobs, by helping them write letters to potential employers and prepare their resumes.

The word "welcome" appears in countless languages on a sign on the wall in her office, next to the words "Keep calm and migration rocks." Deppe began volunteering for Amnesty International at 16, and while attending law school the 41-year-old worked for a law firm that specializes in issues relating to asylum law and aliens' rights.

Matching Refugees with Jobs

She has been trying to match refugees and migrants to companies since early March. When an asylum-seeker appears in her office for the first time, she gathers some basic information: which school the person attended and what kind of training he or she completed in their native country, and what they consider to be their dream job. The people who come to her for help often have less linear career paths than Germans.

She is currently helping around 50 refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Deppe has only managed to place a few of them so far: a cook from Lebanon, two upholsterers from Mongolia and an ophthalmology technician from Macedonia.

The lack of German language skills is the biggest obstacle for refugees and migrants in the labor market. But in order to learn German in a government-subsidized integration course, they are generally required to have proper residency status. Asylum-seekers and refugees not facing deportation have the right to seek advice in a job center and be placed in the labor market, but they have no access to integration courses. This, in turn, prevents job centers from successfully placing them in the job market -- in what becomes a vicious circle.

Immigration is currently regulated under Germany's Immigration Act. Even Germans without a law degree have trouble understanding the jumble of individual laws and ordinances, which is completely impenetrable for foreigners.

The Federal Employment Agency's "Overview of Assistance for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees," provided in the form of an Excel table, lists 17 different types of "residency permission," "residency permit" and "tolerance" for refugees and migrants. For each type, there are different regulations on when they are permitted to work, which assistance courses they are eligible to attend, under what circumstances they are entitled to access to student loans, child allowances and parental allowances, and for how many months or years they are required to have lived in Germany to qualify. In addition, refugees and migrants are constantly being shuttled back and forth between employment agencies and job centers.

All of this costs time, money and patience -- for the government and its employees, but also for migrants and refugees.

'Very Skillful'

Leila Moghadam filed her asylum application in October 2013, but then had to wait nine months before being allowed to attend a German language course. Now she is standing in front of large loaves of bread, small chocolates and sheet cakes. The Iranian native has been kneading, baking and decorating since 3:30 a.m., when her workday begins. The Wippler Bakery, where she works, opens at 6:00 a.m.

Moghadam managed to find work and something resembling a family 30 minutes from downtown Dresden.

She studied political science in her native Iran. She also owned a shop in Tehran, where she made and sold gift packaging, before fleeing the country for religious reasons. Her journey to a new life in Germany cost her about €8,000 ($9,070). In return, she received a visa and an airline ticket to Dortmund, in western Germany. From there, the authorities sent her from one refugee hostel to the next, in Unna, Burbach, Chemnitz and Kamenz. She still doesn't know why.

Since the beginning of the year, she has been living above the bakery, in an apartment she shares with other trainees. The four-room apartment has a shared bath and a shared kitchen. After completing a German course, she was offered a training position at the Wippler Bakery last November. The 33-year-old completed an internship in one month.

Even though she had no residency permit and didn't speak German very well, bakery owner Michael Wippler offered her a traineeship as a pastry chef. "She is very skillful," says Wippler. He believes that work is the best form of integration. "Leila is learning the language and is integrated into society, and the business has a skilled employee."

It has been getting more and more difficult to find people who appreciate the profession, says Wippler. In Moghadam's case, he noticed immediately that she enjoyed the work. This is one reason he wants to see clear decisions coming from the authorities, "because that would encourage other businesses to hire a refugee, as well." Everyone deserves a chance, he says, "whether or not they are refugees."

Moghadam knows she was lucky. "Other refugees spend four or five years looking for work and never find a job," she says, shedding a few tears. Wippler hands her a napkin and gives her a fatherly pat on the back. Her greatest wish is to remain in Germany forever, she says. But at this point she is only in "tolerated" status for half a year, meaning she won't face the possibility of deporation for at least six months. She waited 20 months for a hearing before the immigration authority, and she has been waiting for a decision since July.

But Moghadam isn't willing to simply wait for her future to happen, which is why she attends a German course every day after work. She pays the fees with her meager salary. She would like to open her own small café in downtown Dresden one day, and she says that she only wants to return to Iran when she is very old, "so that I can die there."

The government doesn't know much about people like Leila Moghadam, Dresden hairdresser Jacob Sousani and trainee Said Hashimi in Munich, or about the many foreigners who choose Germany as a safe haven, many of whom want to be German citizens, at least temporarily. It does know that they are younger, on average, than the German and immigrant population already living in the country. In 2014, 32 percent of the people who applied for asylum were under the age of 18, and half of all applicants were between 18 and 35. More men than women are coming to Germany, especially from countries like Syria, countries plagued by war and political persecution. Only a third of all applicants in 2014 were female.


But this is where the government's understanding of the refugee situation begins to grow thin. "There are no representative studies on the qualification structure of asylum-seekers and refugees," says Herbert Brücker of the Nuremberg Institute for Employment Research, who has analyzed the existing data. The qualification structure of asylum-seekers and refugees varies. About a fifth apparently have a university degree, but at the same time, 50 to 60 percent have no professional training. "There is hardly anything between these two extremes," says Brücker. "Immigration that falls under asylum law and involving people who come to Germany to join their families leads to polarization." The problem is that the German labor market has a shortage of skilled personnel with moderate qualifications.

For the last four years, the Federal Employment Agency has maintained a "positive list," which is intended to pave the way for labor migration for people from outside the EU. The list includes more than 20 professional groups within 77 professions in which there is a shortage of job applicants, from lightning protection installers to refrigerated warehouse attendants to oncology nurses and aides.

Like most labor market economists, Brücker advocates promoting labor migration more aggressively in the western Balkans and lowering the relevant hurdles. This would make it possible to grant a limited right of residence to people with completed professional training and a guaranteed job at a guaranteed minimum pay level. "The average German language skills in this region are likely to be higher than in many other countries," says Brücker.

There are still many opportunities to improve the situation of refugees and migrants, while easing pressures on the labor market at the same time. People who already live in Germany can be removed from the asylum process and given a right of residence if they have a guaranteed job. People who are highly likely to remain in Germany can be obligated to attend integration courses immediately upon arrival, in order to accelerate integration. There are also other adjustments that can be made when it comes to recognizing professional qualifications, job placement, education and training.

'I Have a Dream'

Promoting labor migration and recruiting intensively for it will not solve the current refugee problem. But it can provide some relief. Above all, labor migration is the key to future-oriented, controlled immigration, which is inevitable in Germany.

Until half a year ago, Said Hashimi had to report to the immigration authority in Munich once every six months to file an application, wait and then file another application.

Now the trainee from Afghanistan is being allowed to remain in Germany temporarily for three years. He doesn't know what will happen after that, but he would like to stay in Munich.

He also has a particular talent that could help to ensure that his wish will come true more quickly than for most other refugees. Hashimi is a kick-boxer, and this year he became the German junior champion for the second time. However, because he has no passport he is unable to compete in international competitions abroad. To solve the problem, his kick-boxing club wants to support him in his bid for naturalization.

Hashimi, the boy who traveled alone from Afghanistan to Munich at the age of 15, wants to compete for the German national team at the European Championship.

He says something that sounds familiar: "I have a dream."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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spiegelerin 08/27/2015
1. I don't know...
I know a whip-smart, nice Kurdish Ph.D. with a very good command of English who cannot find a job in the highly populated and business rich area of NRW, Germany. He's even had to put off wedding plans. As for former hairdressers, hairdressing is one of the most badly paid jobs here. If they are creating more job training for the refugees, what about those 2,8 million who are jobless? Who is focusing on those numbers? And poorly paid jobs are going to help companies, but not the burden on the public, cities and states. Also, many many of these people will not find work, being housewives, young mothers or young men such as one who said that after working in Morocco, he was going to Germany where he would no longer have to work. This article sounds so positive, but I think there's going to be a lot more pain than gain. Sorry.
Zachary Smith 08/27/2015
2. Big Business is the same throughout the world!
Here in the US we've been subjected to "feel-good" stuff like this for decades. Shut down the factory and ship the machines overseas and we'll all be better off! The worker propaganda is generally more subtle. There are sad/inspiring stories about the Dreamers. What kind of monster is against allowing illegal kids who have done so well in school to stay here? Of course there are plenty of other quite accurate 'sob stories'. Big Everything wants cheap labor, period. They'll finance candidates who promise the rubes they'll do something, but their 'solutions' never seem to stop the inflow of desperate workers. The goal of turning the US "into a low-wage, union-free gulag economy" is nearly accomplished. Looks to me like Big Business in Germany would like to do the same thing over there by tugging on heartstrings. Hell, it worked in the US - why not try it 'here'. One obvious downside is to add fuel to the flame of the 'nativists'. In the US the people who vaguely understand they're being screwed tend to be heavily armed rednecks. I hear that over in Europe they're more of the right-wing neo-Nazi coloration. European Big Business is playing with fire.
Inglenda2 08/27/2015
3. Look behind the scenes
Does the German business community really view the recent influx of refugees as an opportunity to help companies grow and ensure long-term prosperity, or a chance to hinder fair pay? To call for bureaucratic red tape to be lifted so that new arrivals can enter the labour market faster reeks somewhat. Without almost 11 million, from the 17 million displaced Germans, who lost their homelands following WW2, the BRD could never have recovered from all the destruction, which had been caused. From the little left, these people brought about an enormous development in industry and commerce. This achievement was however only possible, through long hours of work by low rates of pay. It is unlikely that the present immigrants would put up with the conditions which existed then, (who can blame them), already many are complaining about the accommodation and help now available. The time that the German industry and economy was dependent on immigration, has gone! It is not unusual for bosses of today, to complain about the costs of German labour and move their places of production to countries where workers are cheap. Latest example, Union Knopf, the traditional button manufacturer from Bielefeld. Such actions weaken Germany financially and in the long run give German trade marks a bad name.
applecounty_1 08/27/2015
4. German Companies See Refugees as Opportunity
In the UK immigration, in whatever form, is seen a cheap source of labour by companies. I would hope Germany was more enlightened.
rikokoko 08/28/2015
5. Model that has always worked for Germany
Great year for Germany with the refugees (ultra cheap labor), the bankrupt periphery (very cheap, mid-high education), and ECB's euro devaluation (exports boost). As good as the first time when borders were opened up for the Europeans to flow in and the DM's evaluation during the switchover to EUR. Good stuff.
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