Refugees in Germany – Vocational language training is the most effective

In 2015 and 2016, an estimated total of 1.2 million people arrived in Germany to ask for asylum. Although Germany had already experienced large inflows of asylum seekers in the early 1990s, the current situation is different not only in its scale, but also because many asylum seekers come from countries where the perspective of return is limited, at least in the short term.

Not every asylum seeker will ultimately obtain international protection, and a clear distinction between those who will be recognised as refugees and those who do not is essential, both in terms of integration support and for the public debate, in which asylum seekers are often referred to as refugees. This risks undermining the understanding and ultimately the acceptance of the asylum system. That notwithstanding, hundreds of thousands of those who arrived in 2015 and 2016 will obtain protection and remain in Germany, and thus have to be integrated into the labour market and society at large. This poses significant challenges, since evidence from European and non-European OECD countries shows that the labour market integration of refugees often takes significant time. While during the first five years employment rates increase rather rapidly from very low initial rates, this process then slows off considerably and eventually reaches a ceiling after 10-15 years, which is often well below that of the native-born.

Due to the duration of the asylum procedure and participation in early integration activities, the arrivals from 2015/16 are only now starting to enter the labour market. In February 2017, already about 9% of all registered job seekers in Germany were refugees and asylum seekers, with Syrians accounting for more than half of them. It is thus an apt time for assessing Germany’s integration framework and evaluating recent policy changes. This review will therefore assess these measures in the light of experiences in other OECD countries and international good practice.

Experience from other OECD countries shows that the overall labour market conditions upon arrival are an important factor for the integration of refugees. From this perspective, the outlook for integration in Germany is positive. The current labour market conditions are very favourable; Germany has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the OECD, coupled with a demographic outlook that is already starting to affect the labour market by smaller incoming cohorts of youth.
Early labour market entry is a key determinant of long-term outcomes. In this regard, Germany has taken a number of measures to facilitate early labour market entry, and the current framework regarding labour market access for asylum seekers is among the more liberal in OECD countries. While subject to a number of conditions, labour market access for asylum seekers is now possible after three months. This improvement is particularly important as the average duration of the asylum process is increasing again, especially for some key groups such as Afghans for whom recognition rates are close to 50%. At the same time, there is a very uneven nationality distribution of asylum seekers for whom employment permits were requested and approved. Some nationalities with relatively few asylum seekers in the first place, and of whom few subsequently obtain refugee status, are largely over-represented among those who receive approvals for employment by the public employment services. This issue merits further investigation.

In addition to facilitating the labour market access of asylum seekers, Germany has significantly stepped up its integration efforts, both in scale and scope, and a first national integration law entered into force in August 2016. In particular, Germany has taken a number of initiatives aimed at early intervention, for example by opening the so-called Integration Courses (600 hours of language training and 100 hours of civic orientation) to asylum seekers from origin countries with high recognition rates. Indeed, language training is the cornerstone of integration policy in Germany and the number of available places in the Integration Course has been increased substantially to meet the large demand, although there is still considerable backlog.

The strong emphasis on language is appropriate, and indeed a joint employer survey by the OECD and the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry together with the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (OECD-DIHK-BMAS survey) revealed that even for low-skilled jobs, half of all participating employers require at least good German language skills. This share increases to more than 90% for medium-skilled jobs. For these jobs, more than 40% even consider very good language skills as necessary. That notwithstanding, overall, three out of four participating employers who hired refugees or asylum seekers experienced only few or no difficulties with them in daily work. Accordingly, 85% are broadly or fully satisfied with their work performance. Among the difficulties mentioned, the lack of German language skills was most prominent – more than 60% of those employers who experienced difficulties stated that this posed considerable difficulties, followed by a lack of vocational skills, different work habits (about 25% each), and uncertainty regarding the length of stay in Germany (23%).

The overwhelming majority of employers participating in the survey – more than three out of four – consider vocational language training during the employment as very important and indeed, evidence from other OECD countries suggests that this is the most effective form of language training, albeit costly. At the same time, the number of vocational language training places is still limited in Germany. Stepping this up has rightly been identified as a priority for the coming years. Survey results also suggest that upskilling measures will be crucial for future policy making. Among those participating employers who had hired asylum seekers or refugees, the majority of positions were low- skilled (two out of three for jobs and one out of two for internships). In the future, however, employers see employment opportunities predominantly in medium-skilled (50% of employers) and high-skilled (15%) positions.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Finding their way: labour market integration of refugees in Germany


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