How Germany is turning the refugee crisis into a boost for small businesses

By letting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere into its work training programs, Germany can help its shorthanded enterprises – and enable the new workers to get on with their lives in a sustainable way.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Ahmad Hosseini, 18-year-old trainee and former refugee from Afghanistan, works with a rasp at the training workshop of Knipex, a pliers and tools maker company in Wuppertal, western Germany.

When refugees from the Middle East started trickling last fall into tranquil, hilly Thuringia, a state in central-eastern Germany, officials in the small town of Zeulenroda knew they had to act quickly to prevent anti-migrant sentiments from building.

So instead of waiting for Germany's notoriously bureaucratic culture to process the newcomers, they mobilized the region to give refugees the tools to get what they need most to succeed: a long-term job.

That effort has allowed people like Waly Tajik, a young Afghan, to get busy. Today, bent over his work since dawn, he’s been measuring, slicing, and polishing timber under the guidance of a master joiner as part of a pilot program to guide refugees into vocational training. Without waiting for the go-ahead from the federal government, Mr. Tajik is preparing himself for a spot as a local apprentice, which in Germany represents a foot in the door to secure, well-paid employment.

The Thuringian project and others like it may be nascent, but they offer new opportunities for both refugees and their potential employers. The unusually proactive effort provides refugees a fast track to integration into the economy, and a way to circumvent all-too-common red tape. And for Thuringia, it could fill apprenticeships that have gone empty too frequently to sustain the Mittelstand, Germany's small- and mid-size businesses.

And for Ulrich Meißner, a glazier who took Tajik under his wing for an internship last winter, that could make a big difference. Mr. Meißner says that the refugee's eagerness to learn, punctuality, and reliability bode well for his future. “If he keeps at it, he’ll make it.”

From refugee to apprentice

As an ex-communist state, Thuringia had little experience with foreigners. But it had assets: before the Berlin Wall fell, the region around Zeulenroda had been a cradle of the furniture-making industry for the entire USSR. Thousands of workers got their practical training at a huge center here; they lived in a nearby boarding house. But in the early 1990s the boarding house closed, and the training center changed its focus to local commerce and industry.

Last fall, Martina Schweinsburg, the region's elected administrator, decided to take advantage of Thuringia's economic expertise and fuse it with the manpower of the refugees. Instead of going through normal – and frequently slow – bureaucratic channels, she went herself and knocked on the door of the various agencies dealing with refugees, from the unemployment office to the migration office and the chamber of commerce.

Once she got them together, they were able to agree on a model to connect the newly arrived migrants with some form of vocational training, particularly in the woodwork sector. So instead of waiting of as much as a year for work authorization, the new arrivals were able to get involved in an apprenticeship work within weeks. The first group consisted of 18 Syrians, Eritreans, and Afghans "with a real chance of staying," says Steffen Täubert, who worked with Ms. Schweinsburg on the project.

Ultimately, the goal is for refugees like Tajik to commit to three-year contracts. Based on a mixture of self-interest and mutual trust, the deal would include more than just vocational basics. Meißner would commit to educating his young trainee, giving him a small stipend for his work. In exchange, the craftsman could secure his workforce for years to come. Tajik, for his part, would have to commit to working with Meißner while also going to school – as part of Germany's demanding "dual vocational training system," where trainees learn a trade both on the job and in school – until the apprenticeship ended.

But first, Meißner says, Tajik needs to catch up on language and other skills. “It’s not as though you can just hire a trainee and that’s it,” he says.

It's a serious commitment. “We’re talking about giving refugees a real, long-term work perspective as qualified workers, not as jobbers who make quick money and disappear,” says Mr. Täubert. “We can’t say for sure they’ll stay. But even if they don’t, we can’t wait until their asylum application process is over to start. We have start from the first day they arrive.”

A boost for Germany

The project is not limited to Zeulenroda. From from Cottbus to Munich and Erfurt, new initiatives to connect refugees with hands-on training of a craft or a trade have multiplied rapidly in recent months.

In aging regions like East Thuringia, one motivation is that craftspeople badly need qualified workers. Germany’s rigorous vocational path is demanding, and apprentices are hard to find these days. More and more, young people lack the skills or the will to find and keep a job during three years of their apprenticeships, says Meißner. The East Thuringia chamber of commerce and industry filled only 735 out of the 1,000 apprenticeship positions available this year. Sixty percent of local businesses here said they’d be open to hire refugees, according to a local survey.

“If we expect refugees to be here for the long term,” says Klaus Zimmermann of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, it's a "chance both for us and for the refugees.”

“And if they end up going home and use the training to rebuild their country, it is also good,” he adds.

Experts agree that refugees won't remedy the country's lack of skilled workers. According to studies by education economist Ludger Wößmann of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, the level of education of young Syrian refugees is much lower than that of their German counterparts. They tend to be older, and, “after all they’ve gone through, the last thing they want is to sit in a classroom forever,” Mr. Wößmann says.

He argues that the German vocational model should be made less rigorous, thus more accessible, to refugees. “We have to get them into jobs after one or two years.”

But even those who disagree about softening Germany's standards for refugees agree that it is essential to get them into the vocational training system.

Hans Peter Wollseifer, president of the Skilled Crafts Organization in Berlin, says that too often, refugees stick with low-paying jobs to send wages home or repay smugglers. “Odd jobs won't get the refugees anywhere,” he says. “We don't need hundreds of thousands of people pushing wheelbarrows; we need skilled people, and lots of them.”

Regardless, the benefits to both refugees like Tajik and employers like Meißner are clear. For Tajik, an apprenticeship with the glazier here could help him stay in a town he says has become “my home.”

And for Meißner, Tajik could be the new blood he needs to keep sustain a business that’s been in the family for 200 years. “Young people don’t want to get their hands dirty, to carry heavy stuff anymore,” he says.

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