Flush with jobs – and potential workers – Germany is stymied by this cultural quirk

Language issues a stumbling block for flood of new arrivals

By Renuka Rayasam

(Reuters) — There is no shortage of jokes about the German language. Mark Twain practically has the crowded market cornered, but Richard Porson, an 18th century English classics scholar, summed up the prevailing sentiment with his quip "Life is too short to learn German."

Now the German language is turning out to be more than just the butt of jokes. In a country desperately in need of workers, it is proving to be a stumbling block that prevents German companies from taking advantage of the flood of new arrivals, from the Middle East and elsewhere in the European Union.

Last year the country became the second-most popular destination for permanent migration, ahead of Canada and the United Kingdom. Dismal economic conditions in other European Union member states such as Greece, Spain and Italy have prompted residents of those countries to try their luck finding jobs in Germany. With the vast numbers of migrants fleeing war and arriving on Germany's doorstep, migration to the country shows no signs of slowing.

Yet more than 30 per cent of German employers surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2013 said that the reason they didn't look to foreign workers to fill job openings was potential candidates' lack of German language skills. These skills are both a legal and cultural requirement: while workers in the EU don't need a visa to work in Germany, they often need to know the language to get through the bureaucratic hurdles like certification exams and to fit into German workplace culture.

"Many migrants with the needed skills would like to come to Germany to work, but there are high barriers to overcome. The German language itself is one obstacle," Yves Leterme, the then deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said at a Berlin conference two years ago.

Blame the lingering effects of British colonialism or perhaps American pop culture, but language is far less of a problem in long-standing English-speaking immigrant destinations such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In some sectors of the German economy, English is also the lingua franca. German is rarely spoken in Berlin's start-up technology sector, for example. Among Germany's major international companies like Bayer, German may be spoken in the halls and cantina, but English is the official work language.

In the country's so-called "Mittelstand," or mid-sized companies, however, business is often done in German, which has so far prevented them from tapping international talent.

Unlike technology start-ups, which tend to be clustered in international cities like Berlin, Mittelstand firms are scattered in small towns throughout Germany. And unlike major international companies, they are often family-owned and historically have rarely looked outside Germany to hire employees.

But as Germany overtakes English-speaking countries to become a leading destination for immigrants, that attitude is starting to change. With an aging population and low birthrate, these "Mittelstand" businesses, often heralded as the engine of Germany's economic growth, see the swell of workers from abroad as a potential boon that can keep the economy humming along by filling jobs.

These days construction firm Josef Hebel GmbH, in the southern German town of Memmingen, regularly recruits non-German-speaking workers from around the world in order to fill jobs that would previously have been filled with native German speakers. About 52 of the company's 430 workers and trainees are from other countries, including six employees and trainees from Italy through Memmingen's partnership with the city of Teramo and one trainee who fled Sierra Leone.

Josef Hebel chief executive Wolfgang Dorn told me that he started offering more language classes for these new hires. After a year of German language classes, Hebel's foreign workers can speak at a high enough level to get around construction sites and effectively perform their jobs, but not well enough to pass certification exams they need to stay and work in the country.

German policymakers have long realized that learning German could be a major hurdle in matching immigrants to open jobs, and have taken the approach of fostering language learning among new arrivals. A major immigration overhaul, implemented in 2005, not only loosened up restrictions for people from abroad seeking work in Germany, but also offered free language and integration classes to immigrants.

In 2012 Germany adopted the European Union's Blue Card, which grants work visas to immigrants with a university degree and a job offer guaranteeing a certain minimum salary of between 36,000 euros and 47,000 euros ($40,500 and $52,900) depending on the sector. It also waives the language requirement of other German work visa categories, which can require proof of intermediate language ability.

Many of the steps that the German government has taken to welcome immigrants are to correct the mistakes that the country made when it invited guest workers from Turkey and other countries in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Dr. Jochen Oltmer at the Institute for Immigration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück. Back then, Germany didn't bother to invest in language and integration classes because policymakers and companies never expected them to stay, and the work they were doing required little more than basic German. With uncertain visa statuses they also often had no incentive to invest in language learning.

Because many of these immigrants didn't learn German very quickly, they had trouble getting more permanent visas and filling openings for skilled workers even if they were educated.

Still, even though the number of free German classes has blossomed since the 2005 immigration law, Oltmer says that there are limits to what they can accomplish. "There are a lot of disadvantages to these German classes," he said. "The German they teach is very formal, very textbook and not always relevant."

Josef Hebel head Dorn agrees that learning the language is important for his employees to conduct basic business, but that they don't need to have the native proficiency required to get German certifications. He believes instead that the local Bavarian state government should start offering the qualification exams in the employee's mother tongue to help keep trained workers on the job and in the country.

"We offer more and more German lessons, but after a full day of work it's hard for them to sit in a language class," said Dorn. "It's not so easy to learn German - it's a huge challenge." 

(Renuka Rayasam is a Berlin-based writer. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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