European Countries: Getting the new arrivals to work


Businesses could benefit, and refugees integrate faster, if newcomers to Europe were able to start working sooner.

DANIEL BAPINGA (pictured) enjoys his job at the Magdas hotel in Vienna, where he works at the bar, serves breakfast and prepares rooms. His family fled Congo for Austria six years ago, when refugee flows to Europe were a fraction of those today. He has settled in well, saying that “when you arrive, it is your own duty to integrate, you have to follow the rules.”

At the 78-room hotel, opened in February by Caritas, a charity, 20 of the 31 staff are refugees, like Mr Bapinga. (Its motto is: “Stay open-minded”.) They are from 16 countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana and Iran, and together speak 27 languages. The restaurant menu is more inventive than at most Viennese hotels.

The hotel’s manager, Sebastiaan de Vos, says that working with refugees is mostly a good thing, but he is also frank about some problems. The hotel is overstaffed. Training takes up to 60% of total working hours. Nervous employees, with few qualifications and little work experience, must be shown countless times how to do simple tasks. A few men who refused to take orders from a female boss had to be turned down for jobs. Some were traumatised, including an Afghan chef with debilitating memories of torture by the Taliban. He did not last in the job.

Nonetheless, the Magdas experiment is worth observing. First, because Europe urgently needs ideas on how to integrate better its huge numbers of newcomers. And second, because as European societies age, many businesses face growing shortages of workers—so for them, Europe’s refugee problem is a potential solution.

Refugees (those recognised as having a right to stay, having fled persecution) and asylum-seekers (those seeking recognition as refugees) are pouring into the European Union in numbers greater than at any time since the aftermath of the second world war. This week German officials said that 1m refugees had been registered so far this year—half from Syria, and many others from Afghanistan and Iraq. Sweden expects nearly 200,000 arrivals. Next year there could be as many again.

The newcomers are typically a lot younger than the greying populations of the countries they are fleeing to, as is the case with their immigrant populations in general (see chart 1). Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, says that of 729,000 asylum-seekers registered between May and October, 82% were younger than 34 years. Their median age is around half that of Germans, which is 46. Some of those arriving are poorly educated, but as surveys of refugees arriving in the Netherlands show, many have secondary schooling and even university-level education (see chart 2), especially those fleeing Syria’s conflicts. And a significant proportion have skills and experience in various professions and trades.

They are coming at a time when Europeans have become less inclined to do many low-skilled jobs, and sometimes lack the skills for the most demanding ones. Germany alone needs 173,000 workers trained in mathematics, IT, natural sciences and technical subjects (known as MINT jobs) and this shortage could almost quadruple by 2020 without additional measures. Small firms, notably manufacturers in the Mittelstand, crave apprentices. A survey of 3,000 such firms in Germany found that most are anxious about getting and keeping skilled staff. Over 1,000 employers offer work and apprenticeships on, a website specifically aimed at refugees. A Swedish government website lists 80 trades, from butchery to midwifery, desperate for more skilled workers.

But for most refugees the easiest route to work, as Mr Bapinga shows, will be into lower-skilled professions of the sort Europeans increasingly spurn. Hairdressing is typical: “Finding employees is the number-one problem for salons,” says Kerstin Lehmann, a representative in Düsseldorf of L’Oréal, a maker of hair products and cosmetics. Germany had 40,000 trainee crimpers eight years ago, she says, but has just 25,000 now. Young Germans prefer to study for other careers; recent attempts to recruit hairdressers from southern European countries failed to add much volume.

It is a similar story in the hospitality business, notably in Scandinavia. Henrik Dider of Scandic Hotels, with 7,000 staff across 80 hotels in Sweden, says young Swedes are shunning catering and hotel schools, even as the industry is growing fast. Visita, a hoteliers’ trade body, reports chronic shortages of chefs, waiters, receptionists and porters.

Labour shortages are even more acute in rural and remote areas, such as northern Norway. Salmon farms there need workers to gut fish, a job locals spurn. SalMar, a big farmer, boasts it has workers of 23 nationalities—migrants, rather than refugees—at its main plant near Trondheim. Parts-manufacturers for Norway’s oil and gas industry also cry out for labourers: ManpowerGroup, a recruitment agency, has placed hundreds of refugees from resettlement centres in temporary jobs in the industry since 2000. Where Russian migrants and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have gone before, Syrian refugees could follow.

Newcomers alone will not fix Europe’s long-term demographic problems. Germany’s overall labour force, for example, will shrink sharply in the next couple of decades, almost irrespective of what happens with migration. Still, the OECD forecasts that refugees will boost Europe’s labour force by up to 1m people by the end of 2016, a rise of 0.4% in just over a year. In Germany, with an extra 430,000 workers, the labour force could grow by 1%.

If you could fix four problems

A series of problems, however, hinder the smooth movement of refugees into European workplaces. The first, and broadest, of these is legal. America generally lets in people it has already screened and recognised as refugees, and allows them to start work almost immediately. There are plenty of low-paid jobs waiting for them, and they typically integrate, and learn English, quickly. Europe mostly gets asylum-seekers, and keeps them waiting, sometimes for years, for refugee status. In this legal limbo they typically get welfare and shelter but are usually barred from work, and even from state-funded language lessons.

Europeans have been too slow to grasp that getting newcomers quickly into the labour market is “the only way” to integrate them, says Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC. Leaving asylum-seekers waiting endlessly for a decision makes it much harder to integrate them later. A Guinea-Bissauan now at the Magdas hotel, fluent in seven languages, had to wait a decade before he could seek work.

Germany’s chambers of commerce want any asylum-seeker recruited as an apprentice to have an automatic right to stay for two years after completing the apprenticeship. Employers will otherwise be reluctant to take them on. But for asylum-seekers whose chances of gaining refugee status are uncertain, the immigration office has said that their stay could be prolonged only if the apprenticeship started when they were under 21. The German government is adding to the uncertainty for employers by contemplating ending the near-automatic granting of long stays to Syrian refugees, and going back to an earlier system of case-by-case reviews (a decision on this is expected soon). Delays either force asylum-seekers into informal or black-market jobs, or make them less employable later.

A second impediment to getting the new arrivals working is the failure to assess their education and skills systematically. There are a few schemes here and there, such as ones in which German state governments have hired recruitment agencies to identify those with high-level skills among groups of refugees. SAP, a German software firm, wants to build a national database for the federal government, to record and analyse the skills of all asylum-seekers, then share the data with employers. But politicians are nervous of anything that opens them to accusations of encouraging more immigrants of all kinds, so such ideas have not prospered.

A third broad obstacle to getting refugees into work concerns the recognition of foreigners’ qualifications—which matters more because of Europe’s excessive demands for credentials. Despite a growing need for carers for the elderly in Germany, for example, job applicants need to have completed three years of training and passed a written exam.

Governments could at least find ways to translate paperwork faster. In Sweden getting foreign qualifications recognised typically takes 11 months. Officials in Stockholm hope to cut that time as part of a plan to reduce, from six years to two or less, the average time a well-educated newcomer takes to find a suitable job. Where unions and employers agree there are labour shortages, rules are being eased to let foreigners start working sooner. The idea is to do this for about 20 different occupations in the next few months, says Soledad Grafeuille of Sweden’s labour agency.

Sweden has identified 1,700 teachers among its newly arrived refugees. They will be put on a fast-track programme from January, preparing them to work in schools—especially ones in which refugee children are swelling classes.

A Dutch foundation, UAF, helps refugees finish their studies and get into jobs, for example by getting their paperwork certified and languages up to scratch. One of its star pupils is an Iraqi cardiologist who learnt Dutch in six months and now works as a surgeon.

Typically, however, refugees lack the paperwork to verify their training and experience, so what helps most is letting them prove themselves in the workplace. Beginning in January, Scandic Hotels will give about 50 refugees a tryout in its kitchens, and decide by the summer whether to recruit them on a larger scale. Ms Lehmann of L’Oréal says the first five potential trainee hairdressers have been recruited this month among refugees in Düsseldorf. She will try them out first on mannequins.

In the Netherlands, Accenture is recruiting among highly skilled refugees. Manon van Beek of the management consultant says that 60 staff coach newcomers, helping them to prepare their paperwork and get qualifications recognised. The firm has so far signed up five staff and five paid interns, including software engineers, and helped others find jobs with its clients.

Fluent, or functional?

A fourth and final task is overcoming language barriers. Those Swedish trainee teachers, for example, will begin preparing for classes with the help of Arabic interpreters, while learning Swedish simultaneously. That is more flexible than before. In the past applicants had to be fluent in Swedish before any other training began. In contrast, although Germany is short of doctors, even the best-trained newcomers still cannot practise until proficient in German to a high level known as C1, which can take years to attain.

A number of European firms are looking at ways to help incomers improve their language skills. Berlin’s water company is opening a training scheme that includes language instruction. SalMar, the salmon firm, already offers its immigrant fish-gutters lessons in Norwegian. McDonald’s in Germany, with an eye on future burger-flippers, is funding 20,000 three-month language courses for refugees.

A lesson from past attempts to integrate immigrants in Europe is that “We shouldn’t try to be too perfect,” says Heinrich Rentmeister of the Boston Consulting Group. Even in the case of doctors, fluency in non-medical matters is not essential, notes a Swedish official working on the integration of refugees into the labour market. The government is looking for ways to teach refugees “occupationally relevant Swedish”, not to write essays on Strindberg.

Many employers in the EU would second the view of Airbus’s boss, Tom Enders, who wrote in October that Germany needs “the courage to deregulate” labour markets to integrate foreign workers. But even short of a wholesale reform of labour law, there is clearly more that EU governments can do to help refugees into work, and help employers fill jobs they might otherwise have to leave vacant. As Manpower’s boss, Jonas Prising, notes, the huddled masses streaming into Europe represent “a wealth of untapped talent”. Businesses are beginning to recognise them as such. Governments should, too.



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