Fixing figures How Germany’s job agencies are gaming the system

Germany is often praised for its low unemployment rate. But job agency insiders say staff are prospering from pushing the long-term unemployed into vocational courses, removing them from jobless statistics.
Quelle: dpa
Your bonus is this way.
(Source: dpa)

Anyone who’s ever walked past an unemployment office in Germany may well have had a flyer, or three, thrust into their hands. Usually they are for different vocational courses – how to put together a CV or use accounting software. Learn German. Overcome personal debt. Know your rights in the social welfare system.

Among the bureaucrats working at the unemployment office – or the Jobcenter as it is euphemistically called in Germany – these classes are considered important. Third-party course providers, who offer vocational or other training for up to three months, can ostensibly help Jobcenter clients back into employment. But there are also other, more nefarious reasons as to why these short-term courses are crucial to civil servants.

Leaked internal documents and e-mails have clarified how. One message instructed Jobcenter workers in Hamburg to ensure that at least 60 percent of available courses were filled in the first half of the year. In an e-mail with the subject “Urgent, for all agents”, a manager told staff that a certain course with only nine spots taken should be filled up as soon as possible. Meanwhile documents at the Jobcenters in Potsdam and Berlin said that all refugees and unemployed refugees must be registered in integration courses.

What do these short-term training courses actually achieve? Not a lot, according to Federal Labor Office statistics. Six months after doing such a course, two-thirds of those who undertook them are still drawing long-term unemployment benefits.

Statistically speaking, when an unemployed person is on a course, they no longer count as unemployed.

“Whether a course like this does anything for an unemployed person doesn’t matter when the course is allocated,” says Petra Friedrichs, a former Jobcenter staffer (last name changed). “The interests of the unemployed person are not as important as that of the staff member.”

Statistically speaking, when an unemployed person is in a course, they no longer count as unemployed. Depending on how good the numbers look, staff members can even get bonuses. It’s all plainly outlined in the employment agency personnel handbook.

If full-time staff members get high-performance grades of say, an A or a B, they can earn a bonus of between 15 and 20 percent of their base salary. For temporary staff, results are far more important: failing to get some unemployed people off benefits puts them in danger of becoming unemployed themselves. According to Ms. Friedrichs, a temp that gets an A or B at the end of the year is automatically eligible for a promotion.

“If you want to hang onto your job, you have to follow the logic of the Federal Labor Office: reach statistic goals with unquestioning loyalty,” says Gerd Zimmer, head of the Cologne Jobcenter’s staff council.

Mr. Zimmer estimates that around 30 percent of employment agency staff are working on temporary contracts, primarily stationed in “front desk” departments. They are the employment agents and case managers who assign beneficiaries to these vocational courses, and easily raise their own chances of a renewed contract or promotion.

Numbers released by the Federal Labor Office show just how veiling these short-term courses are. Between 2013 and 2016, the average number of long-term unemployed who are able to work has remained almost constant. In 2013, there were 4.39 million long term unemployed. In 2017, there were 4.4 million.

What has changed is the number of long-term unemployed who can work who are enrolled in courses. This number has risen by 28 percent between 2013 and 2016. The cost to taxpayers is high. Vocational courses cost the Federal Labor Office €463 million in 2013 and €773 million in 2016.

It is a vicious cycle that most likely won’t end anytime soon. When a long-term unemployed person signs up for a benefit, they agree to do everything they can to find work. If they are offered a course and do not take it, they receive a letter saying they have contravened the agreement and will see their dole cut accordingly.

The winners: Jobcenter staff aiming for an A or B grade, who can “force” their clients into a course – and the often-small businesses who sell their services to the Jobcenter. The losers: Germany’s long-term unemployed and the country’s taxpayers.


This story first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagespiegel. This article was adapted for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]