The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Angela Merkel welcomed refugees to Germany. They’re starting to help the economy.

Syrian refu­gee Mohammed Kassim, left, and Sheraz Chaudry, a refugee from Pakistan, are training as electrical engineers at Campus Handwerk in Garbsen, Germany. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

GARBSEN, Germany — In his native Syria, Mohammed Kassim worked as an electrician. But having learned the trade informally, he lacked the credentials to show for it.

Now, in his adopted homeland, 30-year-old Kassim is receiving the training he never had. And he is getting paid to do it by a company dangling the promise of a job that could vault him from struggling refugee to member of the German middle class.

The program that is helping tens of thousands of refugees rebuild their lives was not created for the newcomers who have converged on Germany to escape war, oppression and poverty. 

Instead, Germany’s apprenticeship system is a fixture of the economy with roots in medieval times. But with the national unemployment rate at a 30-year low, young Germans have lost their appetite for vocational training. Companies face a shortage of skilled workers that could ultimately derail their growth.

“We have real reasons — not just soft, feel-good ones — to assist and help and push refugees into vocational training,” said Günter Hirth, an economist with the Chamber of Commerce in the central German city of Hanover. “The German economy needs qualified workers.”

Whether it can find them among the refugee population could determine the answer to two of the country’s most daunting questions: Can Germany integrate its vast numbers of asylum seekers? And can its economy continue to hum as the native-born population ages?

On both counts, early indications have been promising, if inconclusive.

Nearly four years after German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to leave the country’s borders open amid a vast influx of asylum seekers to Europe, a significant majority of the approximately 1.5 million people who have arrived since remain out of the labor force. Many are taking required integration and language courses. Nearly 200,000 are registered as unemployed.

But after spending billions of euros to accommodate the newcomers, Germany is beginning to reap some gains. The number who are either working or participating in a job training program has been growing, and was at more than 400,000 as of the end of 2018. Of those, 44,000 were enrolled in apprenticeships, according to German business groups.  

That’s on pace with, or even slightly ahead of, what many experts had predicted. 

“We have a benchmark for how it could develop, and after three-and-a-half years, we’re on track,” said Hirth, who cited the integration of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s as a model. In that case, he said, about 80 percent of working-age adults had jobs after eight years.

The current generation of refugees, Hirth said, benefits from the fact that Germany enjoys “an ideal economic environment,” with the unemployment rate below 5 percent.

Germany, meanwhile, is benefiting from the demographic profile of its new arrivals, about 60 percent of whom were 25 or younger.

“It wasn’t the old people who fled. It was the young people,” he said. “This is excellent for us.” 

With a shrinking native population, Germany desperately needs those young people.

“If Germans want to maintain their economic well-being, we need about half a million immigrants every year,” said Wolfgang Kaschuba, former director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research. “We need to guarantee that our society stays young, because it’s aging dramatically.”

Getting the newcomers into the workforce has not been easy. The vast majority arrived without knowing German — a notoriously difficult language — and without the job skills that German companies seek. 

Of those who do work, many have taken low-paid jobs at restaurants, in warehouses or in the gig economy, performing on-demand deliveries. 

Sigmar Walbrecht, who directs workforce integration projects at the Hanover Refugee Council, tries to convince refugees he meets that they would be better off training for a higher-skilled job, even if it pays less right now. But the allure of a quick paycheck is strong.

“They are under pressure. They have to pay money to their families back home and maybe to their traffickers. They want to get their own flats,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to them that in the long term, it’s much better to do an apprenticeship.” 

The German apprentice system traces its origins to the guilds of the Middle Ages and is considered a worldwide model. Apprentices split their time between a vocational school and on-the-job training, often spending three years or more mastering their profession. They are sponsored by a company that invests in their skills and typically hires them once the training is complete.

Each year the program churns out hundreds of thousands of master craftsmen and other professionals who have passed rigorous, nationally administered exams. Experts say the system, and its exacting standards, has been a key factor in making Germany an industrial powerhouse. 

But many young Germans are opting to bypass this traditional path to a middle-class life and gravitating toward university degrees instead. Last year, one-third of German companies said they had training spots that went unfilled as vacancies hit a 20-year high. 

“It’s a war for talent,” said Melanie Fleig, who oversees training for Clarios, one of the world’s largest car-battery manufacturers. “Everyone wants to go to university and make a lot of money. No one wants to work on the shop floor.”

But Alan Ramadan does. The 32-year-old Syrian refugee shows up at 6:45 each morning at the company’s sprawling Hanover production facility. He learns how to weld, to solder, to drill. 

“Back home, I liked to fix things with my hands. It was a hobby for me. And I thought: ‘Why not make that my job?’ ” said Ramadan, who fled the war in Syria.

He has shown so much promise that he has been placed on a track that involves several additional years of training — and a higher payoff when he finishes. 

“From refugee to German engineer,” Fleig said. “That’s the goal.”

Ramadan, who serves as a volunteer firefighter in Hanover when he’s not brushing up on one of his five languages or teaching himself math or physics online, acknowledges that he’s unusual among refugees. For many, a lack of German keeps them from qualifying for an apprenticeship.

Conversational German isn’t enough. Technical German that’s specific to the field is required.

“They want to enter a program,” he said. “But the language is so difficult.”

Other factors that hold down participation rates include the possibility that an asylum seeker could be deported. Few companies want to invest in a worker who is still applying for refugee protection and may be turned down. 

The German government has made some effort to ease that worry, instituting what is known as the 3-plus-2 rule: Rejected asylum seekers can stay in their traineeships for three years and work for at least two more without worrying about being shipped out. Proven skills and a work history can then be an advantage when they reapply to stay.

At a technical school in the Hanover suburb of Garbsen, Sheraz Chaudry, 19, is hoping that success as an apprentice electrician is enough to keep him in Germany. His services are certainly needed: The country’s electrician shortage is so severe that customers can face a weeks-long wait to get one.

In the nearly four years since arriving from his native Pakistan, Chaudry has learned fluent German, made German friends and, along with his classmate Kassim, has stood out as a star pupil to his German electrician instructor. 

“I notice what a thirst for knowledge they have,” said Harald Kühn, 59, who has worked as an electrician across Europe, having graduated decades ago from a German apprenticeship program. “And in these professions, we need exactly that.” 

When hunger for fast Internet collides with U.S. concerns about Chinese spying

The Nazis tried to destroy it. Now Germany’s Bauhaus is getting its due.

At Germany’s last nuclear base, fears of a new arms race as U.S.-Russia treaty collapses

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news