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German Apprenticeships Get Refugees Back to Work

Noor Hameed made it.

The 27-year-old refugee arrived in Germany from Syria in 2014, at the beginning of the European refugee crisis.

Now, after learning German on his own, navigating the country’s notoriously complex bureaucracy and completing a demanding internship, he’s achieved what many would consider a holy grail for asylum seekers: an apprenticeship as a salesperson with Deutsche Telekom.

“I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Telekom, it would have been much more difficult to understand the German system,” said Hameed, adding that the company helped him secure his residency in Germany in addition to providing him with a path to a career. “It would have been so much more difficult to try and walk this path alone.”

Hameed is an exception, but perhaps not for long.

Since World War II, German vocational education has uniquely combined traditional classes with on-the-job training, a formula that has made the country’s workforce among the most skilled in the world.

“It’s a model that hardly exists anywhere else in the world,” said Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “Companies directly contribute to high-quality training by offering a combination of theoretical and practical schooling.”

But the German apprenticeship, once believed to be the backbone of German higher education, is quickly losing ground. The number of applicants for apprenticeships in Germany has sharply decreased over the past decade, while the number of available positions has plateaued, according to Germany’s Federal Labor Office.

Now, with a groundswell of young, largely Middle Eastern refugees looking for work in Germany, the country may have found a solution to its shortage of apprenticeship applicants.

“More and more companies have the problem of finding sufficiently trained people,” Hurrelmann said. “That’s why the apprenticeship is viewed as a very viable path for refugees.”

But that path isn’t easy.

Germany’s rigorous apprenticeship programs can take up to four years to complete if the apprentice is German. But refugees sometimes need months of additional prerequisite training to get up to speed. Many refugees don’t have the luxury of waiting that long to earn a decent living, especially if they have families.

But even those young Syrian and other Arab refugees who can devote the time to learning a new profession face myriad barriers to entry. This is especially true if they don’t speak German well or lack the basic skills to work on railroads, in factories, utilities and other industries, said experts, refugees and company representatives.

“If you don’t have the proper work experience, you likely won’t find further opportunities,” said Alexander Denzin, a team leader for apprentices at Deutsche Telekom who mentored Hameed. “Only one standard applies here in Germany: the German standard.”

At this Deutsche Bahn factory, an internship program prepares refugees for jobs as electrical technicians. Photo credit: Austin Davis.

Only 3,000 refugees entered into an apprenticeship between February 2016 and January 2017, according to Germany’s Federal Labor Office. As of September of last year, there were 547,000 apprenticeships available.

“Germany is a nation that is very thorough and legal. It’s an advantage that everything is so rigorously organized,” said Hurrelmann. “However, the system isn’t very flexible. The administrative barriers for these people are huge, and it’s just not possible for them to get a spot quickly.”

To fill the gap, private enterprises have taken it upon themselves to provide refugees with prerequisite training courses and internships to prepare them for an apprenticeship within their companies.

At the light-rail repair station on the outskirts of Berlin, Deutsche Bahn, Europe’s largest railway operator, began a program last year to prepare refugees for the rigors of an apprenticeship with the company.

While in the ten-month internship, a group of 12 refugees rotate through an array of career paths, including working as electrical technicians, a field particularly lacking skilled workers.

Applicants must prove an intermediate level of German and prior experience in the field before qualifying for the program. They also take accelerated language classes during the internship to improve their German.

But even after the vetting process and internship, many refugees still struggle to adjust to the educational culture in Germany.

“The vocational school, where they’re completely integrated into normal German classes, is the biggest challenge for refugees,” said Michael Hallmann, the apprenticeship and community coordinator at the light rail factory in Berlin.

“It’s incredibly difficult for them to keep up with the tempo of the vocational classes because the teachers don’t show particular consideration for their needs,” Hallmann added. “They just push through the lessons.”

While not yet in an apprenticeship, Motasem Alolh, a 36-year-old Syrian, knew that he lacked the language skills necessary to succeed in his ten-month internship, which he began in November.

“The language was my biggest challenge. It was a catastrophe,” said Alolh. Even after completing the state-funded, six-month language course, he still felt like he was falling behind.

His qualifications, however, were exactly what Deutsche Bahn wanted. Alolh had received formal training as an electrical technician in Syria and had worked in the field before fleeing the country two years ago.

Deutsche Telekom has reserved 100 apprenticeships for refugees. This year, they’ve filled about two-thirds of those spots. To support those already in the program, the company started a one-on-one supervision arrangement between refugees and vocational trainers. Denzin served as a mentor to Hameed, for example, helping him navigate the company, German bureaucracy, and culture.

Hurrelmann said programs like Deutsche Telekom would yield benefits eventually.

“Once a problem is identified, the system changes eventually, but it’s slow-moving,” he said. “We’re in this period currently. I’d anticipate that by the end of the year we will see satisfactory regulations put in place that will help to remedy the issues refugees are currently facing in the dual-training system.”

Alolh is the oldest person among the interns at Deutsche Bahn, but he understands his years of training in Syria will never be recognized in Germany. He is grateful for the opportunity to try and reach the German standard.

“All in all, it’ll take me about ten years to master the profession and have all the same qualifications as a German,” Alolh said. “But when you consider that the war in Syria has already lasted six years and shows no signs of stopping, I’m willing to accept that it’ll take a long time.”


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