DAVOS, Switzerland – The arrival of over 1 million asylum seekers in Germany since 2015 was welcomed by many businesses grappling with skills shortages and an aging population.
While the number of refugees coming to Germany has dropped sharply since then, the complex work of integrating the new arrivals into the German labor force is just beginning.
The global accounting and services firm EY has a team in Germany working on this puzzle, building on Germany’s 2006 Diversity Charter. They have established a roundtable of some 50 German companies to share ideas and expand upon efforts to hire refugees.
On the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we spoke with Julie Teigland, managing partner for EY in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, about the role of global corporations in refugee integration.
Refugees Deeply: What has EY learned through its work in Germany about how multinationals can improve the hiring of refugees?
Julie Teigland: We’ve worked with several NGOs to establish the Diversity Charter that is working on better integrating refugees into daily life in Germany. This is the biggest problem that we face today. Few refugees today are actually integrated into normal life across the globe.
My team has come up with tool kits and working groups on how to integrate refugees, ranging from mentoring systems to information, including a handbook on what you need to know about Germany to survive. That’s been a terrific step in the right direction, but we need to build on this.
We have to keep in mind that refugees represent an incredible addition to the workforce. Many refugees are highly educated; they are displaced simply because of the issues they’re facing at home. They represent an ideal talent source if we can find a way to integrate them locally into our business and make them feel welcome.
The biggest issue refugees face is daily practicalities, like language, understanding the culture, and life around them. They don’t feel part of what’s going on. Unfortunately, many of the rules on asylum seekers isolate them from the beginning. While that isolation may be necessary, it works against integration in every way.
Multinationals can play a role in reaching out and understanding the population better, and helping to sort and integrate them more into daily life: Even if not with full-time employment positions, giving them the chance to exercise their talents is a tremendous way to integrate.
Refugees Deeply: Germany’s immigration commissioner warned that up to three-quarters of refugees will likely remain unemployed in five years. What role can the private sector play in addressing a challenge of this scale and speeding up labor force integration of refugees?
Teigland: It has to be through flexible employment and also reskilling. In many cases, the skills that [refugees] bring are great foundational elements, but you need to add in the culture, how to do business and language skills. Multinationals can offer those platforms – sometimes more effectively tailored – hand in hand with the government.
Refugees Deeply: How can major companies work with governments on such issues when their political agenda turns against refugees, or is in conflict with what the private sector companies want? Have you seen any particularly effective strategies to engaging with policymakers?
Teigland: I can only speak from a German perspective, but [German chancellor] Angela Merkel has opened the door for support and assistance, working hand in hand with the private sector, to achieve the best results. I don’t think [the refugee issue] is a problem that can be solved by government alone. The private sector needs to get involved, and flexible work and reskilling are parts of the answer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.