Integrating Youth

Refugees and Germany’s need for skilled labor go hand-in-hand

Germany's apprenticeships can be jolting to young refugees. Source: Marc-Steffen Unger/Handelsblatt

The integration of young migrants into the labor market is one of the major challenges of the refugee crisis. Since the surge in the flow of refugees in the summer of 2015, politicians, businesses, schools and charitable organizations have been working to provide career opportunities for the country’s new arrivals, especially the younger ones.

However, the initial euphoria is gone: The language barrier and the lack of comparable high school diplomas are major obstacles. Many attempts have been unsuccessful, and to this day, the number of young refugees enrolled in an apprenticeship has only reached double-digit numbers.

Encouraging refugees to start apprenticeships, however, could help fill the country’s 1.1 million vacancies reported in May 2017, of which 64 percent require vocational training.

This makes examples of successful integration, which are often based solely on the commitment of trainers and teachers, all the more encouraging.

Libera, a small authorized VW repair shop in southern Berlin, is a case in point. Youssef Taleb, a 21-year-old trainee, is one of many Syrians who came to Germany in 2014. By the end of 2015, he was speaking excellent German and attending a “welcome class” for refugees at the Senior High School Center for Automotive Technology in Berlin. In Germany he went through four different schools until his teacher found him the apprenticeship. Six years after his arrival, he will be able to receive the certificate of apprenticeship in 2020: It usually takes three and a half years.

Another example is Tahirou Barry. The shy 19-year-old came to Germany as an orphan when he was 15 and is now training as a mechatronics technician at Libera. He previously worked at a repair shop in Guinea, but never learned to read, write or do basic math. These are all skills he learned in Germany. He is eligible to receive the certificate, but it will likely take longer, says Julia Libera, junior manager at Libera.

Mr. Taleb and Mr. Barry are among those who comprise the “huge potential” of skilled workers that Ingo Kramer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, foresaw in Germany back in 2015. A total of 1.34 million refugees have arrived since then. More than half are younger than 25 and a third are underage. In other words, they are at the right age to become skilled workers. In Berlin’s vocational schools alone, there are currently 2,300 refugees attending the city’s 180 “welcome classes.”

“Germany doesn't know what it wants, and it is asleep at the wheel when it comes to an immigration law.”

Ivica Ziemann, Berlin teacher

In the beginning, it was almost only exclusively small companies and family-owned businesses willing to give young refugees a chance, but increasingly larger companies have joined in. The uncertainty of whether a refugee is allowed to stay long term is often a deterrent. At the moment they are permitted to stay two years after completing their vocational training, which is often not enough of an incentive for companies or the participants.

The path of even the most eager refugees is much longer than the normal three and a half years. Few students are able to start an apprenticeship after only one year of vocational preparation and “welcome classes,” especially if they arrive illiterate. It tends to be six years or longer.

With such commitment required, it only makes sense to start a program if a refugee knows how long they can stay in the country. After two and a half years of fighting for refugees, Berlin teacher Ivica Ziemann is audibly frustrated: “I waited at the beginning for a political marching route, but it never arrived,” he says angrily. “We urge the boys to step up, but to work well, we need a clear message.”

“Germany doesn’t know what it wants, and it is asleep at the wheel when it comes to an immigration law,” Mr. Ziemann says. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party CDU is currently debating a cap on migrants, rather than focusing on processing asylum claims and streamlining processes that provide job training and necessary qualifications to refugees, argues economic advisor Lars Feld.

27 p7 Fewer asylum applications-01

Refugees increasingly hear that German apprenticeships take too long and are not worthwhile, Mr. Ziemann says. Syrian national Mohammad M., for example, did an internship at a car repair shop, but then rejected the offer of an apprenticeship, saying he’d prefer to earn money quickly as an unskilled cleaner.

In general, however, the young students are incredibly motivated. Even more so than locals of the same age, who are going through the same process, Mr. Rahmig says: “It’s is a real joy and they really ask: ‘Can we practice this again?’ I haven’t heard anything like that in 20 years.”

In addition to security from deportation, students require social care well after the age of 18 to be successful as many refugees, especially those from the Middle East and Africa, “lack family support,” he says. They also need to more time in the classroom: Mr. Rahmig believes the students are capable of much more and sees a lot of interest in continuing studies into the afternoon, even though class ends at 1:30 pm.

“Anyone who leaves young men to their own devices should not be surprised if they come up with strange ideas,” says Mr. Rahmig, arguing that more class time provides opportunities for targeted and structured integration. Here they can also address the often exaggerated ‘sense of honor’ and cultural images of women.

But this requires vocational schools to hire more professionals and tutors. Many volunteer supervisors are students, but they are neither professionally qualified nor do they know the education system, he explains. And training aids provided through the country’s Employment Agency, for services, like private tutoring, for example, need to be offered to refugees from the very beginning, not after they have taken their mid-term exams.

“It all sounds very expensive,” he admits. “But it’ll be even more expensive if we don’t.”

Barbara Gillman covers politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!