Supporting the Labour Market Integration of Refugees: the Network IQ

How do labour market stakeholders support people with a refugee background? This essay discusses the results of one of Germany’s central labour market integration players, the Network “Integration through Qualification” (IQ), from both a quantitative and a qualitative point of view. In particular, it addresses if the Network IQ has successfully catered to the needs of refugees and discusses the significance of the fact that 30,000 refugees have been supported by the Network since 2015. Furthermore, this essay highlights the integration approaches and measures that have proven to be promising, including “one stop shops”, providing IQ’s services in multiple languages, and targeting subgroups (e.g. women, entrepreneurs). Against the background of recent integration policy developments in Europe, it is also asked where the Network IQ could go from here.


Since 2015, more than a million people sought refuge in Germany. In response to these developments, one of the central integration programs in Germany, the Network “Integration through Qualification” (IQ), was mobilized and strengthened to support the labour market entry of the many newcomers with refugee background. This essay zooms in on the core activities as well as the main quantitative and qualitative results of the Network IQ so far. Finally, the Network’s future chances and challenges are discussed against the backdrop of innovative integration policies abroad.

Since 2005, the Network IQ has worked to improve employment opportunities for people with a migration background in Germany, particularly those with professional credentials gained abroad. Connecting labour market actors at the local level, IQ’s 16 regional networks and their subprojects cooperate closely with relevant actors, such as employment agencies, job centres, unions, civil society actors, chambers or counselling centres. In the 2015-2018 funding phase, IQ’s sixteen regional networks and their about 380 subprojects in all federal states are funded by the Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) and the European Social Fund (ESF). Building on strategic partnerships with the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and the Federal Employment Agency (BA), the Network IQ has made its services available to all displaced people independent of their legal status in Germany – a qualitative aspect that was part and parcel of the Network IQ since its early beginnings and that has quickly gained traction since 2015. Those supported by IQ with a refugee background thus include: persons with refugee status on the basis of the 1951 Refugee Convention (German “Flüchtlingsschutz”); persons with asylum status due to political persecution, based on the German Constitution (German “Asylberechtigung”); those currently applying for asylum (German  “Asylbewerber”); persons entitled to subsidiary protection (German “subsidiärer Schutz”); and those whose asylum claim has been rejected, but for whom a ban on deportation has been issued, for example due to health reasons (German “Geduldet/Abschiebungsverbot”). In this essay, the term refugee is used in a wide sense encompassing all displaced persons.

Since 2016, 16 million euros have been additionally invested into the program to serve the growing group of displaced people seeking advice in IQ’s approximately 100 counselling points on credential recognition and job training (including 60 mobile counselling units). Since the pathbreaking Federal Recognition Act (German “Anerkennungsgesetz”) was passed in 2012 to make it easier for skilled immigrants to use their professional or vocational qualifications in the German labour market, providing free-of-charge counselling on credential recognition has become a core aspect of IQ’s mission (focus area 1). In a further effort to match migrants with the needs of the German labour market, since 2015 the Network IQ has expanded its offer of job training schemes (focus area 2). According to experts, difficulties in credential recognition and job training are among the main hurdles hindering displaced people with skills from finding an adequate job. It matters whether people receive their recognition. In its 2017 report “Making Integration Work: Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications”, the OECD explicitly praised Germany for passing progressive laws and for establishing IQ as a nationwide counselling service.  A recent evaluation of the Federal Recognition Act showed that, by helping immigrants with foreign qualifications receive their recognition, the Network IQ has significantly contributed to improving their employment situation, job satisfaction, and wages.


Quantity Matters: How Full is the Proverbial Glass?

In June 2016, when the Network IQ’s monitoring system started recording whether its clients (those seeking counselling) had a refugee background, the relative size of this group became immediately clear. According to IQ’s statistics, 31,660 refugees (29% of all IQ clients) received counselling on credential recognition and 9,475 (31%) on job training over the last two years, while 3,871 participated in vocational/professional training (26%). More than two years after the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, these numbers certainly bear testimony to the Network IQ’s efforts to adapt to a changing context. However, a crucial question arises: what do these figures actually mean? In terms of integration support: is the glass half full or half empty?

To answer this, it is important to look at existing statistical data with some nuance. For one, IQ’s target group does not include all people with refugee background, but only those of working age (25 years and older). If we take into account that around 60% of refugees are aged 18-65, the potential pool of IQ’s clients suddenly looks considerably smaller. As a result, out of approximately 1.5 million refugees (statistics from February 2018) around 900,000 would be part of the client base of IQ. But this number must be adjusted downwards once more, as IQ focuses primarily on people who have obtained educational or professional qualifications abroad. A 2016 German survey of approximately 4,500 refugees by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the Socio-economic Panel (SOEP) at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), and the Research Centre on Migration, Integration and Asylum of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF-FZ) shed light on the heterogeneity in refugees’ levels of education and skills: around 25% of the adults attended higher education, finished vocational education and training or had been self-employed; 73% had substantial work experience.

All things considered, the potential pool of clients for the Network IQ amounts to about 500,000 rather than 1,5 million. This figure echoes the estimate of potential new workers with refugee background on the labour market by the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), as well as the February 2018 statistics of the Federal Employment Agency, which indicates that 477,000 refugees are momentarily registered as job seekers (of which 179,000 have been registered as unemployed).

A third and last statistical differentiation concerns the actual labour market availability of refugees. How likely are those officially registered as unemployed and job-seeking to start working in the next few years? It is more than reasonable to assume that many of the refugees are physically or psychologically hardly capable of working, especially in view of the considerable levels of trauma and physical impairment as a result of conflict- or flight-related injuries. Moreover, it is quite questionable that refugees have the time to start (re-)building their careers directly after their arrival in Germany, as they will be likely absorbed by other priorities at the beginning – including housing, family reunion, and language- as well as integration courses. The more than 300,000 refugees who are currently registered in time-consuming integration courses, which generally take over six months to complete, will very likely experience a slowing down of their working biographies, at least for a while.

It is therefore not easy to determine the impact of programs such as the Network IQ on refugees’ integration into work. This might be especially frustrating for the stakeholders in question (sponsoring ministries, project employees, etc.), since it is not because of a lack of monitoring efforts that this uncertainty persists: tools of accountability are firmly in place, as the aforementioned figures suggest. Moreover, besides the 30,000 refugees that have been monitored so far, it is imperative to understand that IQ also supports refugees indirectly in terms of training labour market stakeholders that regularly work with people with a migration background (which is part of IQ’s priority area 3). IQ has trained nation-wide about 12,000 employees of local Jobcenters through a course titled “Basic Intercultural and Sensitivity Training with a Focus on Asylum and Flight“ (German “Interkulturelle Grundsensibilisierungen mit  Schwerpunkt Asyl und Flucht”). As the numbers of refugees supported by IQ are expected to stay high in the next few years, IQ’s quantitative performance so far has to also be evaluated in terms of the many refugees that have not yet started relaunching their careers but will do so in the next few years. As IQ’s structures of communication, networking, and evaluation have been firmly established, those entering the labour market will profit from these structures.

Besides reaching the target group, a central future challenge may be to develop instruments able to capture the “messiness” of the integration process and the lives, careers, and possibilities of refugees. Although refugees may appear as a fairly homogeneous group in popular discourse and imagination, they lead, of course, lives that are as heterogeneous as those of other residents of Germany. There is no reason to believe that socio-political fault lines and discriminations do not play a central part within refugees’ communities, for instance. Most prominently, the intersectional issues of gender, education, professional credentials, and nationality do matter greatly. According to the OECD, refugees born and socialized in countries such as Syria and Iran have a higher level of education than their pendants from Afghanistan or Eritrea. A considerable gap exists (of about 10%) between the labour market participation rates of women and men.

Statistical attention and careful monitoring of these fault lines matter in order to ensure that all refugees are supported and to limit existing socio-political biases. So far, the Network IQ tries to address these issues by establishing spaces of critical discussion, transfer, and exchange. This belongs to the the task of the five competence centers, which ensure the quality of services and test innovative approaches in specific thematic areas. As one example, in the past few years this discursive, qualitative approach has allowed the Network IQ to raise attention to the specific challenges facing women refugees (leading to various publications on the subject). Moreover, frequent discussion and information events allow for a transfer of knowledge and for an exchange of practical experiences between the various local IQ networks and competence centers in terms of the labour market integration of refugees.


Quality Matters: What Works Well?

Apart from opening up its pre-existing counselling services for the new target group, since 2016 the Network IQ has developed about 50 new projects that are specifically directed at refugees. Three qualitative approaches run as “golden threads” through these refugee-centred projects. Firstly, bundling complementary offerings into “one stop shops”, by offering IQ counselling on credential recognition in the same location where other key labour market stakeholders also provide their services – e.g. Employment Agency, Jobcentres, Second Language learning projects, health-care-related projects –has proven to work well. Exemplified by the Integration Points in North Rhine Westphalia or Hamburg-based Work and Integration for Refugees (W.I.R.), the feedback from those working within these one-stop shops is very positive: higher efficiency and fruitful cooperation with the other stakeholders lead to better cooperation, greater efficiency, and more adequate counselling.

Secondly, providing counselling, orientation and job training services in multiple languages – Farsi, Dari, Arabic, Tigrinya particularly – is a key factor to improve the projects’ outreach and increase their clients base. The downside is that finding competent counsellors with the right language combination is much easier in cities than in minor urban centres or rural areas. And offering counselling in the mother tongue of refugees may result in staff spending more rather than less time with each individual client, as the latter tend to come back for more sessions.

Thirdly, projects that target subgroups of refugees (e.g. women, entrepreneurs) usually perform well, despite the obstacle of reaching the specific subgroup in a targeted fashion. Providing support to groups which would otherwise fall through the cracks of the IQ system is an autocorrective trait of the program. For instance, one of these groups are women. Female refugees constitute about 25% of the overall IQ clientele with a refugee status but compared to their share within the refugee population in Germany, which has reached 40%, they appear to be underrepresented in the counselling services of IQ. Notwithstanding these limitations, the Network IQ’s partnerships with the Federal Employment Agency, Jobcenters, volunteer organizations, and chambers of commerce, allows to craft highly targeted approaches to reach underrepresented groups. This type of individualized support, however, requires considerable cultural capital and human resources in order to succeed.


Integration in Fast-forward Mode: European Lessons in Speed and Efficiency?

It takes time for refugees to find stable and adequate employment. As a rule of thumb, five to fifteen years are required for them to reach a labour market participation ceiling which, according to the OECD, is still well below the average rate of the native population. Many refugees will have to go through extensive recognition procedures, counselling sessions, or language courses before they can even consider relaunching their careers in Germany. This is due to the multiple challenges that many refugees face (such as interrupted educational and professional trajectories, housing that is insecure or far from the main centres of economic activity, family responsibilities, trauma etc.) as well as the complexities and bureaucrat hurdles of the German labour market. Thus, despite the good intentions of the many stakeholders involved, the danger of an “alienation from the labour market” (to quote at this point Matthias Knuth ) is looming in the background.

To counter this challenge, it is worthwhile to consider European answers to the slowness and complexity of the labour market integration process as a whole. What can IQ learn from them, all while keeping in mind significant contextual differences? Sweden, for example, has developed promising approaches through which newcomers can relaunch their careers through a transparent, and tightly interwoven “fast track” of support. Experienced chefs, to name but one profession with a fast track, may profit from a set of support tools – such as vocational language courses, validation procedures carried out at the workplace, additional training – that create a clear and faster path into their profession.

Fast tracks are not simply a tool for refugee integration: they take account of the existing labour market demand and strive to harness available talent for the benefit of the country’s economy. When it launched these “fast tracks” in partnership with the social partners in 2015, the Swedish government focused on professions with skills shortages, including chefs, medical and healthcare professions, painters, construction engineers, electricians, and teachers/pre-school teachers.

Another approach for a speedier integration into work is Norway’s “Turbo Evaluation”. This procedure, which takes up to five working days, supports employers by giving them a preliminary evaluation of the foreign credentials for job candidates they are interested in. Although the Turbo Evaluation is not a legally binding decision and thus does not replace the formal (and lengthier) recognition process, it offers an interesting shortcut to matching supply and demand, particularly for unregulated professions where an official recognition is not absolutely necessary to work.

First echoes of quicker integration measures can be found in Germany. One recent example is the “Early Intervention” approach, launched as a pilot in 2014 by the Federal Employment Agency, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and the ESF program XENOS. “Early Intervention”, which has developed from a pilot project to an enshrined part of the 2015 Act on the Acceleration of Asylum Procedures (German “Asylverfahrensbeschleunigungsgesetz”). This approach has given refugees immediate access to regular measures of the Employment Agency, such as career counselling, upskilling measures or qualification recognition.

Against this background, the way forward for IQ may be, firstly, to get to know these innovative approaches from abroad, evaluate them in terms of how they might play out in Germany, and transfer them into the German integration policy framework in due course. The Swedish example strikes as particularly interesting, as it has managed to organise existing measures in such a fashion that they provide a clear-cut, timely path for a set of jobs. Germany in general could learn from these examples. First steps have been taken within the scope of the Network IQ, as the program has started to disseminate Good Practices from abroad through the publication series Good Practice International.