Business vs Government Blame Game Over Refugee Jobs

Germany may have flung the doors wide open for asylum-seekers between 2015 and 2016 but for many of them, the doors to the work world remain shut.
Many refugees want to work and many German companies can use them.

The numbers tell the story. Between 2015 and 2016, Germany accepted more than 1.2 million migrants fleeing war and poverty in Syria and several North African countries. But at the end of last year, only around 34,000 had found jobs.

At Ford’s huge factory in Cologne, typically starving for young people eager to launch a career in the automotive sector, just 15 refugees have landed an apprenticeship.

These numbers are all the more significant, given that Germany’s economic boom has nearly emptied the domestic labor market and its demographics show an acute shortage of young people to keep the economy purring in the coming years.

On Wednesday, more than 100 executives from a wide range of large and medium-sized German companies across multiple sectors met in Munich to exchange views on how they can help put more migrants to work. They are part of a program, called Working Together, launched by Ralph Dommermuth, the founder and chief executive of United Internet.

Our customers don’t pay us to be occupied with such utterly senseless things. Rainer Stetter, Chief Executive of ITQ

Why have so few refugees found work? “Don’t blame us” was the overwhelming response of the executives. And many used the opportunity to vent their frustration to representatives from the Federal Employment Agency and Federal Office for Migration and Refugees attending the event.

Rainer Stetter, the chief executive of the ITQ software firm, described his ongoing battle with authorities to employ a young Afghan apprentice who speaks German well and is fully integrated but has been ordered to leave the country. The engineer has hired lawyers to help him fight the case in court. The litigation and visits to authorities, he said, have been a waste of time and money. “Our customers don’t pay us to be occupied with such utterly senseless things,” he said.

Mr. Stetter is particularly peeved with the overall situation, because the federal government actually offers a solution to ease apprentices' path into the workforce. But the problem, he claims, is that local authorities don’t implement it consistently, if at all. Under the federal “3-plus-2” law, refugees have the right to stay for the duration of a three-year apprenticeship period and another two years to pursue employment.

The startup Social Bee in Munich offers an alternative way to help integrate refugees in the workforce. Essentially, it operates as an employment agency for refugees. It selects candidates, gives them language training, handles all the bureaucratic employment procedures with officials and finds temporary jobs that can evolve into full-time jobs after 12 to 18 months. During this time, Social Bee provides coaching support.  The team currently has 10 refugees placed in jobs at the food discounter Aldi.

The refugees “are here and we need to do our fair share to help them,”said Johannes-Jörg Rieger, the chief executive of the Bavarian state bank BayernLB. Volker Theissen, in charge of training at Ford in Cologne, noted some headwind in authorities because of “the rise of populists” and called for support to help refugees enter the economy. “If we can’t do this, who can?” he asked.


Joachem Hofer is an editor with Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]