Integration – What is European Business doing?
By Lisbeth Kirk
Thirty-six German companies teamed up under the name Wir-Zusammen (We Are Together) in autumn 2015 to promote integration of refugees.
It happened just weeks after German chancellor Angela Merkel had declared "we can do this" at a press conference on 31 August, raising hopes for thousands of asylum seekers wanting to start a new life in Germany
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ThyssenKrupp, an engineering and steel conglomerate headquartered in the western German city of Essen, was one of the initiators of Wir-Zusammen.
The firm will be offering 230 internships and 150 apprenticeships to refugees over two years.
“When the crisis arose, we thought: What can we do to tackle the problem? How can we help the government and help the people? So we encouraged our employees to help the refugees," the company’s Heike Neumeiste told EUobserver.
"For example here in Essen there is a refugee camp one kilometre from us, and we urged people to donate things and allowed employees to help them during working hours with for example learning German.
“We also thought: What could be a long term help to integrate people? And that is of course work. If people work here, they have a better chance of integration.”
The internships last from three weeks to three months and are meant to give an insight of the company.
Eighty refugees have already had an internship, which is a pretty good number, according to Heike Neumeister.
She says the process has not been easy.
“At first, people need have to have certain status, they must have been acknowledged to stay in Germany,” says Neumeister.
“We can’t just go to a refugee camp and say please come with us and have an internship. That does not work, they have to follow a certain process.”
The apprenticeships are more demanding than the internships, for the company as well as for the refugee.
They involve three years on-the-job training that qualifies for full-time employment. The firm plans to start offering them in autumn this year.
Refugees must come with open minds
“The biggest issue is usually the language. You have to speak a very good German to work on the production side within ThyssenKrupp. You must be able to understand instructions due to safety issues,” Heike Neumeister explained.
On the refugee’s side the most important thing is to come with an open mind, she said.
“Of course we are a bit different so they have to be open minded and motivated. We are very punctual and follow certain rules that are new to some of them and they have to be able to accept that we work this way,” she said.
ThyssenKrupp and many other German companies are facing a potential shortage of skilled labour.
"All the systems we develop now to qualify people, to integrate people, to get cultural training and all that stuff that is something we will benefit from in up to five years," Neumeister said.
The sudden task of integrating refugees into the company's workforce challenged the company's HR organisation.
“What the HR organisation is learning now is to speed up processes, because the refugee situation became very critical very fast – so we had to deal with it very fast. It’s an issue of flexibility,“ said Neumeister, who is the firm's spokeswoman on HR issues.
It is also a key to success that the company's existing workforce are on board and informed of the plans.
“We have to communicate a lot and make these issues very transparent. We are offering these internships and apprenticeships additionally as we did not want anyone to feel that something was taken away from them," Neumeister said.
“But actually only very few people respond negatively. And it helps that a lot of employees have direct contact to refugees, because then the image completely changes so they are fine with it.”
Patience is the biggest challenge
Siemens, a technology and engineering conglomerate that employs 114,000 in Germany alone, was also among the initiators of Wir-Zusammen.
So far 40 refugees have made it into the company’s six-week internship programme, which can potentially lead on to a six-month course in language and mathematics.
“Without German language nothing works here,” the firm's HR specialist Alexandra Frommer told EUobserver.
She said it was quite a challenge to get the internship programme started.
Completely new contracts had to be developed, rules and regulations incorporated and new networks built between the public authorities, job and asylum centres.
But now it goes much more smoothly and the internship programme will get rolled out in four different parts of Germany.
”Patience is the biggest challenge for us as well as for the refugees,” she said.
“It can take four to five years to learn the language and require the skills needed for a job here in Germany.
“Many don’t expect this and do not understand why rules and regulations must be followed. We can’t just enrol a refugee into a university here, they must first fulfil the criteria.”
Refugees contribute economically
There is so far little pan-European organisation of business initiatives to integrate refugees. But initiatives are popping up across Europe.
Denmark has for example 58 companies signed up to an initiative named 'Sammen om Integration' (together for integration).
In Sweden, LinkedIn launched a pilot programme called Welcome Talent that attempts to match qualified refugees with local job and internship opportunities.
In Germany, McDonald’s is funding 20,000 three-month language courses for refugees.
Philippe Legrain, a former economics adviser to the European Commission, said there were quite a few businesses being proactive and recruiting refugees, but overall they needed to do more.
He has led one of the first comprehensive, international studies on how refugees can contribute to advanced economies for the Tent Alliance, a foundation aimed at helping displaced people, set up by billionaire yoghurt producer Hamdi Ulukaya and supported by among others Airbnb, the IKEA Foundation, LinkedIn, MasterCard, UPS and Western Union.
"In order for business to do more, governments need to put in place the right policies," Legrain told EUobserver.
"It should be possible for asylum seekers to come to work while their application is being processes and to speed up the processes. They need to make sure their qualifications are recognised quickly or that courses are provided that you can require equivalent," he said.
"Government and businesses need to work together."
A version of this story also appears in EUobserver's new print magazine, entitled Business in Europe, due out this week. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine.