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Refugees are building a future for themselves

Many skilled-craft companies are short of skilled workers. Many young refugees are looking for new prospects. A Federal Government programme is bringing the two sides together step by step.


Adnan Mohammad is standing in the middle of Frankfurt’s banking district, at the spot where the skyscrapers stand particu­larly tall and the glass façades glitter with particular intensity. At the roadside, Mohammad is engaged in “compaction work”, to use the technical term. All around him are building site fences, stones, earth and the diverted big-city traffic, constantly roaring past him. The young man is using a tamping machine to compact the earth, ready for it to be paved. Mohammad works bit by bit, square by square, with concentration and diligence. The 20-year-old is a road builder with the firm Bratengeier and will soon complete his first year of training. It’s been a really long road that has brought him this far, to the construction site in Frankfurt’s city centre.

Mohammad comes from Pakistan. He left his home country a few years ago to escape from crises, conflicts, misery and hardship. He wants to settle down as quickly as possible in Germany and build a new life for himself. “Peace and work are the main things,” he says. But finding an apprenticeship required a lot of strength and energy: various German courses, the secondary school-leaving qualification, internships, a Federal Employment Agency (BA) programme to help new labour market entrants – all these things were needed to secure the apprenticeship. Now he has not only left the refugee hostel, he also speaks good German and has already gained a good 
reputation in the company. “The lad’s a great worker,” says general foreman René Wendler of his apprentice.

Mohamed Nassir Ismail hasn’t yet been quite so successful. The 22-year-old Somali has been in Germany for about two years. In August 2016, he is to begin training as a bricklayer with the building firm Seng and is “very, very happy” about it. He is still completing his so-called initial training placement with the company – a sort of extended internship financed by the BA. The programme, which runs for a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 months, offers young people the opportunity to prove themselves in a company. The businesses, for their part, can take a closer look at prospective job applicants without much risk and then consider whether to offer them a traineeship. “That’s a good thing for both sides,” says Joachim Buhro, head of the EBL Bildungs­zentrum, which belongs to the construction sector training institute Bildungswerk BAU Hessen-Thüringen.

But even this step is not easy to negotiate for many young refugees, as Ismail’s example shows. The offer is open to all young people in Germany, not specifically to refugees. Ismail only managed to be accepted for the programme because he was lucky enough to find committed supporters. One of them is Karin Näder, a retired teacher who helps refugees on a voluntary basis. Without her commitment and that of Matthias Gurth, vocational training advisor at the EBL Bildungszentrum, the young Somali would not now be about to embark on his apprenticeship as a bricklayer. Karin Näder got in touch with Matthias Gurth, who in turn contacted the building firm Seng. They were looking for new workers and were happy to give a refugee a chance. “We managed to work the whole thing out together,” say Näder and Gurth.

But the issue of vocational training – a particularly important element in successful integration – should not, if possible, be left to chance, as in this case. To better co­ordinate demand and supply, the Federal Government launched its Paths to Training for Refugees programme in February 2016. Together with the BA and the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH), it wants to provide as many as 10,000 young refugees with a traineeship 
in a skilled craft in the next two years. The programme 
is designed to qualify them for jobs with German companies. “We know that around half of the refugees are under 25 years of age,” said Federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka when presenting the initiative. “Many of them have good prospects of being able to stay in 
Germany. They can be successfully integrated if we help them to get a traineeship.”

“Skilled crafts are an area with great employment potential,” emphasises Frank-Jürgen Weise, who heads both the BA and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). In fact, some 14,000 traineeships in the skilled crafts sector remained vacant in 2015. Skilled workers who have already completed their training are also much sought after, especially in the construction sector. There is a strong demand for bricklayers, road builders, pipeline builders and tilers, but young Germans show little interest in apprenticeships in these occupations. “The building trade doesn’t appeal much to young Germans,” says Oliver Seng, owner of the construction company where Ismail will soon begin his apprenticeship. At the ZDH too, there is talk of refugees representing an opportunity for the skilled crafts sector. The problem of the shortage of skilled workers can’t be completely solved this way, they admit, but refugees could be part of the solution. Provided, that is, they learn German and make it as far as an apprenticeship.

The new, multi-phase programme is designed to help them here. It begins with a four- to six-month integration course on German language and culture organised by BAMF. Following this, the participants acquire initial experience in a skilled craft – again for four to six months – and gain an insight into the German vocational training and employment system. Prospects for Young Refugees in the Skilled Crafts Sector is the name of this BA orientation phase. Those who qualify for a traineeship can then move on to the programme Career Orientation for Refugees, which over a period of three months prepares the young men and women specifically for three apprenticeship trades in the skilled crafts sector – in training centres run by skilled-trade organisations like the Frankfurt EBL and with a company.

At the same time, the young people improve their knowledge of German – something they need urgently not only in everyday life but also for their subsequent training. If they then still fail to qualify for the traineeship, they have the option – like Mohammad and Ismail – of 
an extended internship, which remains open to all interested young people and serves as a springboard to the world of work. It takes a few years, then, for a young refugee to obtain an apprenticeship diploma and draw a full salary. “Of course, it’s a long slog,” says Joachim Buhro of the EBL Bildungszentrum, “but it’s the only way to do it, step by step.” And each step brings with it new knowledge and skills, enhancing the trainees’ self-confidence and well-being – that, at least, is the goal.

Adnan Mohammad, who managed the long slog without such official assistance, is now concentrating on the second and third year of his apprenticeship. “I definitely want to successfully finish the training.” Mohamed Nassir Ismail also has big plans: “First the apprenticeship as a bricklayer, then the master craftsman’s qualification,” he says with determination. His boss Oliver Seng offers him encouragement: “He can enjoy great success with us because he’s motivated and reliable, and our order books are full.” At the ZDH in Berlin, too, the message is that skilled crafts are open to all. “They can offer pro­spects to everyone.” ▪