The incorporation of refugees into the labour force is one of the key factors for successful integration.

Stefan Brending/IAB

Using a five-point plan, Herbert Brücker explains how refugees can best be integrated into the German labour market.

    - Christian Hellermann

    "Time is Being Wasted"

    Economist Herbert Brücker on the importance of refugees finding jobs quickly – and how this can best be achieved

    Are the high numbers of refugees merely a cost factor? “No,” is the clear answer given by Economist Herbert Brücker. There are definite benefits for Germany, but the country will have to invest a great deal and forge new paths with its asylum policy – starting immediately. According to Brücker, the new Integration Act is not a significant improvement on the current situation.

    Emergency reception and housing centres are being cleared and refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries are beginning to queue up at job centres. Applications for asylum are also  being processed more quickly and in March 28,000 displaced persons received asylum status. Most of them are placed in the Hartz IV aid system and are allowed to work – at least in theory. But the practical reality is different, says the economist Prof. Herbert Brücker of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg. In addition to his position at the IAB, Brücker is also the chair of the University of Bamberg’s department of European Labour Market Integration which was endowed by Germany’s Federal Employment Agency.

    For years, Brücker has focused his research on migration, integration and labour market policy. By his appraisal, the most recent refugees to Germany are finding employment at rates slower than other immigrant groups: “Our research shows that in the past, around 50 percent of refugees were gainfully employed after five years, 60 percent after ten years, and about 70 percent after 15 years.”

    Plans for a study on current refugee group

    There are still no hard figures for the current refugee groups, so in order to have accurate information and precise data for future analysis, Prof. Brücker is conducting a large-scale, joint study with the participation of the Institute for Employment Research, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), and the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin. The study is collecting surveys comprising more than 200 questions from at least 2000 refugees, and respondents will complete multiple interviews over an extended period of time. The collected data will be combined with that of the Federal Employment Agency in order to track respondents’ employment paths in Germany. “We want to see how they assimilate, what their lives here are like and how their situation continues to develop,” says Brücker. Initial findings are expected to be available by the end of this year.

    As Brücker sees it, one reason for the adverse employment prospects has to do with the fact that many current war refugees lack qualifications like German language skills and professional expertise. As he puts it, “Many have not completed any kind of vocational training programme or apprenticeship. Some are equipped with a good secondary education, but they are by no means as well qualified as the other groups who have immigrated to Germany in recent years.”

    Asylum policy must change

    The reasons, however, do not end with lacking qualifications. In fact, the current immigration influx has both highlighted and exacerbated a well-known problem: immigrants could begin working sooner, but this simply has not been the objective of Germany’s asylum policy. “In the past, nothing was done to integrate refugees into the labour market. The emphasis was placed solely on deterrence,” says Prof. Brücker. According to him, the only relief for social welfare programmes will be effected by the swift integration of refugees into the labour market, but this is currently impossible due to an absence of adequate structures and resources. In his estimation, even the federal government’s Integration Act of 25 May offers little improvement on the current situation.

    One telling example involves language and integration courses. Under the current system, asylum seekers drawing government benefits are obligated to participate in an integration course if called on to do so by a government agency. The courses are meant to be available prior to the end of the asylum application process, but many asylum seekers do not receive a place in such courses until after approval of their applications – precisely the point at which they should be able to enter the labour market. In the months prior, they are made to wait idly in emergency shelters and are lucky to receive a bit of language instruction. For Brücker, this is a horror scenario. “So much time is wasted. We need to invest more in these people’s futures – and much sooner,” he says and points to a five-point plan of action: swift acquisition of language and cultural knowledge; prompt integration of children and adolescents into the German education system; better opportunities for gaining vocational skills; a goal-oriented job placement service; and, above all, an expedited system for processing asylum applications.

    Meeting the demands of labour market integration with a five-point plan

    It is essential that young refugees gain access to schools, vocational programmes and universities as quickly as possible. “Many young refugees have already received a good deal of secondary education, but they need to be able to complete this education – and whenever possible with a graduation from our standard school system,” says Herbert Brücker. Where older refugees who have not completed a recognised apprenticeship or vocational programme are concerned, their skills and knowledge are either unknown or not assessable. “We really have to learn all we can about these people. This shouldn’t only be the responsibility of a job centre, the Federal Employment Agency or a similar institution. Companies themselves would be the best ones to do this,” he says.

    Brücker points out that it’s not only private enterprises that face this challenge; public authorities must also do more to ensure appropriate job placement. Over 60 percent of refugees find their first job with the help of friends, acquaintances or family members, and though he admits that “this isn’t bad per se,” he adds that “it does show that our current job placement services aren’t working well enough. There’s definitely room for improvement.” 

    However, the ability to integrate refugees quickly also depends on decisions concerning who gets to stay and who must go. There is still a considerable backlog of cases at the BAMF: approximately 370,000 applications are awaiting processing and between 300,000 and 400,000 refugees still have not even been able to file an application. “First you have to establish legal certainty, and this involves expediting the asylum procedure,” says Brücker. The five measures in his plan are expected to cost several million euros. “But according to what we know, that money is well invested. We would profit in the long term,” adds the labour market expert.

    From engineers to waiters or farm hands

    At the same time, Brücker cautions against having excessively high expectations: even if these measures could be established immediately, even qualified specialists would likely need years to acquire the language proficiency necessary to pursue their old professions in Germany. “From our point of view, you have to assume that the vast majority of refugees – even those who attended university or graduated from secondary school in their home countries – will end up taking low-skilled positions in the German labour market,” says Brücker. The engineer or the teacher simply won’t be able to take up their old profession right away. It’s more likely that they would find employment in food service, agriculture or other tertiary sectors.

    According to the economist however, this is not a fundamental problem for the labour market, because, despite technological advances and an industrialised economy hungry for highly educated experts, there are more than enough low-skilled jobs in Germany. “Lots of people argue that we only need a highly qualified labour force. I don’t think this is true,” says Brücker. Although more and more jobs are being filled by university graduates, this doesn’t mean there is no longer room for employment that doesn’t require such advanced qualifications. Brücker believes that employment possibilities also conform to the pool of potential applicants, saying simply, “The labour market is far more flexible than people assume.” Asparagus farming, for example, would have ceased long ago if not for the migrant workers who tend the German fields. It’s also reasonable to expect an increase of available home care jobs in the future. But Brücker also adds that these jobs would have to be ones subject to social insurance contributions. This is because the 100,000 job opportunities provided by the new Integration Act tend to be of the so-called “one-euro job” variety, and these do nothing to boost pension and social welfare funds. What’s more, there is still no conclusive evidence that the jobs created by this labour market policy instrument actually support employees’ integration into the labour market.

    Mandatory residence is counterproductive

    So in order to maximise their employment opportunities, refugees with official asylum status need to go where the work is. They are able to do this now, but one aspect of the planned integration law is the introduction of a mandatory residence stipulation. Brücker clearly rejects this policy saying, “I think it’s completely absurd! It’s only sensible that people would settle in places where their employment perspectives are favourable, and this is most often the case in urban areas."

    It is important to remember that a large influx of people is beneficial not only to the economy, but also to the long term development of the state and its social systems – and quelling the rising costs of pension plans is just one pertinent example. As Brücker explains, “We would need immigration numbers at a net total of 550,000 in order to maintain a steady workforce potential.” Net immigration in Germany has been relatively steady at 200,000 people for some years, even if current numbers are considerably higher. Whether or not these refugees primarily represent state expenses in the billions of euros, or whether the country can benefit from them – this really depends on how many of these new residents can find jobs. A great deal still has to be done, and it will certainly come with a price tag, as Brücker points out: “Yes, we need immigration, but it’s not going to manage itself.”

    This press release was translated by Benjamin Wilson.