When Bavarian company Kaeser Kompressoren hired refugee brothers Ahmad and Ayman Shanana for a three-year traineeship, it was the perfect win-win situation. In Germany’s second-wealthiest state, around 12,000 trainee positions are unfulfilled, according to the Federal Employment Agency. The young men in their early 20s fled war-torn Syria during the height of the refugee crisis and are eager to make a better life for themselves in Germany. Rüdiger Hopf, head of training at the family-run air compressor company, said Ahmad and Ayman are fast learners. They are studying German and even have their German technical terms down pat.
Everyone would be pleased – if it weren’t for the overwhelmingly bureaucratic system that constantly seems to threatens the arrangement. Ahmad is allowed to work at least three years and will be able to complete the traineeship, but Ayman was only given a six-month permit.
“We have to keep checking if we are even still allowed to employ him,” Mr. Hopf told Handelsblatt’s sister publication Wirtschafts Woche. “It’s more and more frustrating.”
It’s just one of countless cases in which the German labor market is struggling to successfully integrate refugees. About half of the almost 1.3 million asylum seekers who arrived in Germany since 2015 are unemployed. Only 18 percent have a proper job, according to the Nuremberg-based Institute for Employment Research.
The institute, which has published a monthly migration monitor since 2015, found that only 143,000 refugees have landed a job that provides social security insurance. Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers now on unemployment benefits has doubled over the last year to half a million.
One of the main reasons is many applicants don’t speak enough German or aren’t qualified for jobs on offer at German firms. Only 19 percent of refugees have a professional qualification. Just 13 percent hold an undergraduate degree. About a quarter never graduated from high school.
Learning sufficient German to hold down a job takes most migrants one to two years, according to Christian Wiglow who heads the employment center in Düsseldorf. Many sent to him cannot read and write in Latin script, he said.
The German government has since spent more than €20 billion, or just shy of $23 billion, on migrant support from language courses to integration programs. Since early 2016, 486,500 migrants have attended an integration course designed to impart basic language skills and knowledge of German law, culture and society – less than half of all registered refugees.
At the same time, the Federal Employment Agency is currently examining €310 million worth of contracts with external providers of language courses, which have allegedly failed to deliver.
As a result, only 3.5 percent of German companies have hired refugees. Those asylum seekers who do find jobs frequently end up working in lower-level positions than they held back home. Herbert Brücker at the Institute for Employment Research warned this will polarize the labor market, crowding the least qualified out of even low-level jobs.
While Mr. Brücker predicts that five years from now about half of all refugees should have landed jobs, he said there will be “a large group that even after many years will hardly be integrated at all.” Even for migrants with the right profile for German firms, red tape and insecure residency status can provide major barriers to employment.
A 2016 law was meant to eradicate such problems by giving refugees who find a traineeship a blanket five-year permit – three to complete a traineeship and two to apply their skills in full employment. But state authorities have a lot of leeway on how they implement the rule. The Bavarian chamber of commerce claims that even once permits are issued, they are are sometimes revoked.
So the fate of the Shanana brothers, and their potential careers with Kaeser Kompressoren, are uncertain.
“Kaeser wants to fulfill its civic duty. But we need reliability so we can plan ahead,” Mr. Hopf said.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel called for German’s to get behind her open-door policy, businesses and politicians were hopeful the influx of mostly young asylum seekers would provide an economic stimulus. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said migrants were an “asset” to the country, and Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche called refugees “the next German economic miracle.”
Ms. Merkel famously assured parliament and the German people: “We can do this.” Nobody is doubting that Germany can. But the question is, how?