Berlin, Germany – When Abdullah Hassoun arrived in Germany in November 2015, he barely spoke a word of German and his main priority was simply that he and his wife reach safety after fleeing the war in Syria.
Four years later, the 27-year-old is working as a land surveyor in Berlin for a small engineering firm, doing the job he spent years training for at the University of Aleppo while the war raged around him.
“It was so hard to go to university and continue studying,” Hassoun told Al Jazeera. “And so, when I started looking for a job, I always tried to get a job in my field. I didn’t want to throw those five years away.”
Hassoun was among the almost 1.2 million people who applied for asylum in Germany during the height of the migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016.
The initial priorities for the German government were registering and housing the huge influx of arrivals. But once settled, many migrants started to take integration and language courses with an eye towards entering the labour force.
Increasingly, that path is paying off.
A recent study by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees found that almost 35 percent of refugees who had arrived in Germany in 2015 had a job by October 2018, compared with 20 percent the previous year.
Researchers also found that many refugees managed to find work despite language difficulties and a lack of formal vocational qualifications that are normally vital to securing employment in Germany.
“What surprised us is that about a bit more than 50 percent of the refugees are working in skilled jobs, which usually require vocational training certificates or higher certificates, although only 20 percent of the refugee population have such types of certificates,” Herbert Bruecker of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), which helped produce the study, told Al Jazeera.
A combination of “favourable labour market conditions”, language progammes and job placement initiatives are helping refugees land jobs, Bruecker explained. That includes refugees who don’t have formal vocational training but previously acquired specialist skills in their home countries.
The influx of human capital is happening a crucial time for the economy in Germany, where the population is aging and unemployment is at its lowest level since the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany.
A tight labour market signals a skills shortage, which could pose a threat to future economic growth.
The dearth of qualified workers is already being felt by German businesses. A survey of more than 23,000 companies by the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) found that nearly half of companies are unable to fill vacancies in the longer term because they cannot find suitable employees.
Deportation versus the need for skilled labour
Refugees in Germany are caught in the crosscurrents of a package of immigration bills designed to both toughen asylum rules and speed up deportations, while simultaneously lifting labour market restrictions for asylum seekers and making it easier for skilled migrants who are not from European Union countries to come to Germany.
Included in the package of bills approved by Germany’s federal parliament or Bundestag earlier this month is a measure that would allow asylum seekers who arrived before August 2018 to be able to stay for the time being if they have a steady job and speak German.
The government’s current approach to work and refugees has come under fire. For example, refugees who are employed are often the most vulnerable to deportation because they haven’t gone underground and the state knows where to find them. Rejected asylum-seekers can also wait for up to 12 months before being allowed to enroll in vocational training or start work.
But groups such as the DIHK have joined forces with the federal economics ministry to establish a network of more than 2000 companies, including many small and medium enterprises, to help refugees integrate into the labour force.
“There is a great willingness on the part of the companies to invest time and money, to accept bureaucratic hurdles and to overcome cultural differences – both because the labour market makes it necessary and because they see it as an important social contribution,” Marlene Thiele, who heads the DIHK project, told Al Jazeera.
Refugees are embracing Germany’s apprenticeship system, where they are sponsored by a company and can work and also attend a vocational educational institute, says Thiele.
“Dual training has become the most important form of employment among our members, with almost half of the companies currently training people with a refugee background,” she said.
There is a great willingness on the part of the companies to invest time and money, to accept bureaucratic hurdles and to overcome cultural differences - both because the labour market makes it necessary and because they see it as an important social contribution.
Helping refugees help the economy
Land surveyor Hassoun found an internship with his firm by responding to a Facebook post by the non-profit group Jobs4Refugees. The organization has placed more than 250 refugees in jobs or apprenticeships since its inception in 2015, and has helped another 1,500 with training, workshops and consultation.
Though he already had his degree, Hassoun said his internship set him up for success by exposing him to state-of-the-art equipment and by helping him become more proficient in the technical language of his job.
Beyond non-profits, many large private firms have implemented their own programmes to help refugees help the German economy.
More than 150 refugees completed an internship programme at software giant SAP last year, and 57 of them secured jobs at the company, said Björn Emde, vice president for global corporate affairs at SAP.
He told Al Jazeera that SAP now processes all applications from refugees through its general process.
“We are confident that we can deal well with the applications of any kind and background,” said Emde. “From our point of view, the project was a great success and a great learning opportunity for all of us.”
Sana Dawod is a 32-year old software developer from Damascus who landed a job with SAP through its refugee internship programme.
When she arrived in Ludwigshafen in early 2015 with her father and siblings, she had four years of professional IT work experience as well as proficiency in English. Though she was studying German, SAP allowed her to use English during her internship and assigned her a mentor who encouraged her to apply for a job.
“That was the most encouraging and supportive thing,” Dawod told Al Jazeera. “Getting this job in SAP has helped me to feel more secure and also it helped me to get permanent residency.”
Dawod also met her husband – a fellow Syrian – at SAP. The couple is now expecting a baby.
But for all the progress that’s been made, there’s more to be done.
Dawod is one of the relatively few female refugees who arrived in 2015 and have since secured steady work.
But AIB’s Bruecker says many of the women who arrived in Germany as refugees are likely to enter the workforce eventually.
“More than 70 percent of the females have children, and 60 percent of those children are under three,” he explained, adding that when these women do find work, it will further tip the balance towards a net benefit to the country.
We want to show that we are not only here for the money, but that we want also to live, work, be productive, develop ourselves further. I am very grateful.
Currently, Germany is still spending more on refugees than it takes in from them in the form of taxes and social contributions. But the German Institute for Economic Research forecasts that the balance should turn positive by 2021 onward.
“My expectation is that if we achieve an employment rate of 60 percent or 55 percent, then it will shift,” said Bruecker, adding that this is likely to take another three years.
Hassoun certainly wants to do his part and help build a stronger Germany, and along with it, a future for his daughter, who was born in Berlin during the summer of 2016.
“We must not forget that Germany has given us a great chance to go on with our lives and to start a better life here,” he said. “We want to show that we are not only here for the money, but that we want also to live, work, be productive, develop ourselves further. I am very grateful.”