Why you should care

This is an unlikely twist on the global plight of the displaced.

The din of many voices fills a small room. Six young Arab men sit, sardine-style, on a motley assortment of chairs, chatting and joking. Michael Strucken had actually invited only one of the men to his office on the 12th floor of the job center in Cologne, Germany, but he says he’s learned something over time: “An asylum-seeker rarely comes alone.” Brothers, interpreters, best friends and their best friends huddle around the sole invitee.

All of these men are eager to work, but perhaps more intriguing than their own prospects is the job of the man they are here to see: Strucken is Germany’s first talent scout for refugees.

When you think of 21st-century jobs, things like Silicon Valley and wearable tech probably come to mind. But civil unrest in a dizzying array of regions has created a massive pool of skilled workers who’ve lost everything — including their careers. According to Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior, around 50,000 new refugees are expected to arrive in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) alone in 2015. Nationally, that figure rises to some 300,000 new asylum-seekers. If just 1 in 20 refugees were qualified for the labor market, an additional 15,000 skilled workers would be available nationwide each year. This holds immense appeal for the state government, which wants scouts to scour every refugee center in the state as fast as possible.

Strucken’s role as his country’s first talent scout for refugees has existed for only about a year. He helps people to get job training, earn their own money, structure their days and make a life for themselves in Germany. And there is no tension from competition among native Germans for jobs. During the first 15 months, the refugees may apply only for positions that have no suitable applicants from Germany or the EU.

Part of Strucken’s job is putting off dozens of candidates for months and urging them to be patient.

Surprisingly enough, this role isn’t emerging because of a boom in the refugee population — that figure has held fairly steady since the 1990s. Yet back then, public debate was one-note: Stop immigration. Today, the conversation has expanded to include a question: Do the people coming to Germany have anything of value to contribute? This question was first posed by business leaders, who for several years had been pushing for refugees’ labor market potential to be explored. The job centers evolved around a year ago, with the NRW state government now launching pilot projects with talent scouts in three locations. Nine talent scouts are currently operating to a greater or lesser extent nationwide.

Most of the people that Strucken selects in his searches were high achievers back home, particularly older people from Syria and Iraq — where “old” means over 30 — who often belonged to their countries’ elite. Almost 10 percent of Strucken’s clients are doctors, often with years of professional experience. And Strucken says they’re generally thrilled to meet him. “These people are used to having control of their own lives,” he says. “Being suddenly dependent on the support of strangers like me is a real challenge to their self-confidence.”

This explains the lengths to which they’ll go to get work through Strucken. Take the Iranian father who crammed Germany vocabulary until late into the night and spent weeks studying a German daily newspaper he ordered himself. He even chatted in German with his young daughter because she’d already learned some German in day care. Strucken also remembers the Afghan woman who flat out didn’t understand him when he asked if she ever wanted to go home. “Why?” he recalls her replying. In Germany she can remove her burqa, nobody gets shot in the street and gas and electricity flow 24/7. Women are even allowed to earn their own money. Why leave?

But the lucky recruits have a long way to go after finding their way to Strucken’s office. Please pause and forget everything you’ve ever heard about German efficiency. Now cue the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.” First, Strucken’s clients have to provide proof of their qualifications. That usually means months of back-and-forth with relatives, employers and schools in their home countries — official inquiries to government bodies are generally fruitless. Occasionally, days of multi-aptitude competency tests will suffice, such as in a field like mechanics. But there’s a long waitlist for such tests.

And then Strucken and his clients have to agree on career goals that are realistic in Germany. There are several dozen requirements to meet just to transfer over a driver’s license. For one thing, each certificate has to be produced and translated into German. Why not just take the test anew in Germany? Strucken wonders the same thing. The job training program has many stages. A vocational language course with at least six months of work experience is at the program’s core. Half the vocabulary that’s taught is specific to the target profession and can immediately be used during the long work placement. But here’s the thing about these language courses: There aren’t enough of them. The state government doesn’t provide enough financial support for language courses. Part of Strucken’s job is putting off dozens of candidates for months and urging them to be patient.

So it’s no surprise that Strucken’s successes can so far be counted on one hand. His training program has taken on 150 refugees in 15 months, but only four of his “clients” have found decent jobs. Two Iranian men are working as electricians, one Iraqi is earning his living as a hairdresser and another Iranian woman will soon start her job as a business assistant specializing in foreign languages.

He’s not discouraged, in part because finding jobs is only one motivation. Strucken, whose work used to take him to slums around the world, is keenly aware of what can go wrong in the lives he touches. Long, idle months of doing nothing in the confined space of crowded shelters pushes an above-average proportion of young male refugees onto dark paths. NRW’s Interior Ministry has warned as much. In the Cologne area that Strucken oversees, around 80 percent of the refugees are male and 75 percent are under the age of 30. Claudia Walther, a senior project manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation, an international nonprofit devoted to research on social issues, agrees that so much waiting is problematic: “They wait and wait and wait. And many German people think, as a result, that the refugees are lazy and don’t want to work.” It is “surprising” that there aren’t more problems, such as “frustration that comes to violence from the refugees and from the other German people as well,” Walther says. And so Michael Strucken soldiers on.

Dani Hutton contributed reporting to this article.

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