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

September 30, 2015
Lopez Leon of Spain takes breakfast tray to resident's room at SenVital elderly home in Kleinmachnow

Raquel Lopez Leon (R) from the Spanish city of Cordoba takes a tray with breakfast to a resident’s room at the SenVital elderly home in Kleinmachnow outside Berlin May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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 percent 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

13 comments

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German is the largest spoken language in Europe. It is not only the language of Germany, Austria, and most of Switzerland, but is also the lingua franca of many East European countries, from the Balkan all the way up to Latvia. If you want to migrate somewhere, you need to speak their language — that seems to be obvious.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Excuses and laziness are so pervasive now in this liberal society- Everything is too “hard” now for weak lazy people. A student loan is a burden now, instead of a blessing.

Cowards who censor the truth because they cannot handle reality are disgusting.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Workers wanting to get into germany. How’s that for a turn around for you?
All of these lazy cowards leaving their country because they don’t have the will of the people to overturn their corrupt countries and get rid of those making their lives terrible. Change your own countries. Amazing how the Western countries seem to thrive so much better than the rest of the world. Just a bunch of coward economic opportunists are busting down the gates of countries which have made themselves great. Fix your own countries, and these stories become something historical, and never seen again.

Posted by BasicKnowledge | Report as abusive

Workers wanting to get into germany. How’s that for a turn around for you?
All of these lazy cowards leaving their country because they don’t have the will of the people to overturn their corrupt countries and get rid of those making their lives terrible. Change your own countries. Amazing how the Western countries seem to thrive so much better than the rest of the world. Just a bunch of coward economic opportunists are busting down the gates of countries which have made themselves great. Fix your own countries, and these stories become something historical, and never seen again.

Posted by BasicKnowledge | Report as abusive

Even Reuters is repeating the lie that Germany needs workers. What a wonderful conspiracy of left-wing writers and analysts we have here! Working to destroy yet another European culture? Sarcastic clap.

Posted by BillSimmons | Report as abusive

It is remarkable that in 2015 a major British news agency keeps a link titled “’Awful’ language keeps some from jobs” on its home page to link to this article. Does Reuters make a habit out of hiring people that made a living writing headlines and photo captions for the Sun? Just wondering? This articles strikes me as ethnocentric, written by someone on the “inside,” an English-speaker who dismissively looks at the study of other languages. That is rather sad, considering that she is working on assignment in Berlin as a journalist. Rather “insular.” How does the author communicate? May I suggest working on assignment in Bainbridge, Georgia.

Posted by Bloomie | Report as abusive

Aryans welcome the Ar(ab)yans.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Germany had very few colonies, and a very weak film and TV industry outside of its own borders. For the past 300 years, there has been no reason for anyone outside of Germany to learn German. Asking the global economy to learn German now…. is like asking Google users to learn Fortran if they want to search for cat videos. No point.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Germany missed the opportunity to outsource those jobs to the Middle-East now the job applicants are coming to claim their jobs.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

You mean there is a downside to the invasion? Ever try learning Arabic?

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Shock Horror! Those looking for work and a life in Germany are expected to learn German. And the writer (or Reuters editor) deems this a “cultural quirk.”

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Heck – just do like our government in the US has done – have TWO languages. Then the German companies can have messages on their phones saying “Press one for German” and “Press two for ‘whatever\'”. Signs in stores with Arabic, too.

The German economy has been strong, but not for long now. It will take a lot of taxpayer money to support the “refugees” for quite a while.

Plus, the main problem will be the so-called “peaceful religion” of Islam, which may lead to changes in the attitude of German citizens when the thousands of “refugees” start DEMANDING that their sharia laws be followed according to their religion. So long, Oktoberfest!!!!!

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

I thought German was very simple and easy language to learn the basics of. Much easier than Spanish or French, for me personally.
Everybody is different I suppose.

Posted by mrkingtut | Report as abusive