[Interview] Fliesen Röhlich: Migrants Meet Demands in an Industry Struggling for Skilled Trades Workers

From humble beginnings as a family-owned company to one of the largest tile laying companies in Germany, Fliesen Röhlich has built a reputation as a high quality and reliable firm in the construction sector. However, as the company grew and expanded, so did its need for skilled trades workers, and the talent pipeline of tilers in Germany was not keeping pace with the needs of Fliesen Röhlich. In an interview with company leader, Martin Röhlich, we learn how migrants from neighboring countries and the influx of refugees to Germany helped to meet demands and contribute to the company’s great reputation among clients and contractors alike.

What was the motivation behind the recruitment of refugees at Fliesen Röhlich?

Primarily, we were motivated to recruit refugees due to the shortage of skilled workers in Germany. Over the last several years, it has been increasingly difficult to find German skilled workers – and this has been a new challenge, as the last 40 years of running this business has been with a German workforce. So we were required to rethink how we build recruitment programs to ensure we have skilled workers at our company today, and in the future.

Beyond the business incentive, my wife and I are very involved in the settlement and integration of refugees in our community. This volunteer work with immediate settlement needs quickly led to the idea that real integration includes access to work in Germany. Employment through training programs and internships seemed like the best opportunity to offer refugees to support their integration.

How successfully have you integrated refugees and migrants into your workforce?

In the last year alone, we have 80 new skilled workers at Fliesen Röhlich. In an industry struggling for skilled workers, this is a huge success. The group is diverse, made up of refugees from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, and migrants from neighboring countries, Romania and Croatia, among others. And their skillset is also diverse. Outside of Germany, a designation of ‘tiler’ does not exist, and is typically just identified as ‘construction’. This adds versatility amongst the group, which makes them flexible, while not diminishing the quality of their skillset.

This used to be my main fear when recruiting migrants and refugees: will their skills have the same standard of quality as Germany? But we have had no problem in this regard; in fact, their versatility adds to the company, as they can also cover other trades. This group is highly motivated, so when we are pressed to complete a complex project, and overtime is required – I am met with resounding eagerness to get the job done. It’s incredible, and allows us to maintain our reputation with clients when we have such dedicated staff.

How were migrant and refugee hires received by your existing staff?

In the beginning, many employees held the same fears I once had: newcomers would not hold up the same standard of quality. But once current employees and new hires were on a job-site together, that fear quickly disappeared. They realized through work that our new hires share the same quality standard of their work. And more importantly, a lot of perceived difference between Germans and the newcomers became less real through working together. After a week spent together on the construction site, talking over their shared lunch break and commuting home together, similarities of family, home life and interests quickly replaced any difference. There was also a greater, deeper understanding about the conditions many of our new hires were fleeing from in their home countries.

Our employees also very quickly realized that additional skilled workers meant there was an opportunity to take on even more projects, securing their long-term employment. Thanks to the many new employees, we can handle much larger construction projects and cover work in other areas, something that was previously not possible. Due to increased work, we are actually creating more German jobs: we’ve had to hire additional site and project managers, a buyer, a lawyer and a technical manager. So while I have hired many skilled workers from other countries, increased capacity has resulted in creating jobs for Germans too.

What about cultural differences among the new hires? Did it cause any changes to the workplace?

Of course, as new staff joined our team from different cultures, we had to try to be flexible as an employer. Faith is different among some of our new hires, and I had to be open to providing days off to employees that celebrated holidays outside of the ones typically granted in Germany. We don’t see these cultural differences as a negative though, we see it as adding to our overall workplace culture. We have a calendar that reflects all religious holidays, so all staff and management are aware. Transparency makes it easier to foster understanding.

For instance, some of our new hires are Muslim and fast during certain times of the year. I have to understand this so I can ensure we’re not sending someone who is fasting (and possibly not even drinking water) out in the blazing sun for long periods of time. It is something new to add to our processes, but not something that I consider a burden or draw-back.

Have there been any challenges posed with the recruitment of migrants and refugees?

The primary challenge has been language, and honestly, I had underestimated the importance of language. From the outset, I hadn’t believed language would be an issue, as it’s not a crucial skill for tiling. However, I quickly realized that without a common language, it was difficult to explain the technical requirements of a job. Once this became apparent, we worked hard to create a solution: we now sponsor language courses for refugees right in our company office. We commissioned a teacher from the adult education center and provide rooms within our office to host the classes twice a week, in the evening. Importantly, the language courses are open to the broader refugee community in Wendelstein, not just our employees.

Our existing employees often grab a coffee or ice cream with language course attendees, and get to know them before heading home from the office. This is a great way to further build relationships with refugees new to our community.

There was also a need very early on to have an individual within the company dedicated to supporting the on-boarding and on-going integration of migrant and refugee hires into the workplace. So we have a dedicated contact person within our company who is the primary person for any questions about the workplace, training, the internship program or any other challenge a new hire may be facing.

What about working with other industry professionals or clients? Have there been any challenges?

We have been confronted with some reservations from both clients and other professionals, like architects or other contractors, when working with non-German speaking workers on a job-site. We try to ensure that we have a German-speaking foreman, or site supervisor, to mediate amongst the different people involved in the job. However, reservations are very quickly dismantled after a week or so on the job-site together: our new hires demonstrate their craftsmanship and reliability, breaking down any perceived shortcoming due to language. Also, many of our new hires are simply nervous to speak German because they are less fluent. After being on the job-site together, they begin to speak more freely, and the German professionals and clients realize the true talent and value of these newcomers.

What advice would you give to other companies looking to hire more migrants and refugees?

Openness – from both company leadership and employees. The entire team needs to understand the needs, the skills migrants and refugees bring, and the shared effort required for successful integration in the workplace. Change always poses some form of fear or concern, but in my experience, if you are open and transparent, many of these concerns fade once current and new employees interact with one another.

I also believe companies need to hold migrants and refugees to the same standard as their local workforce. Not every migrant or refugee hire will be the right fit for your workplace, just like not every local hire has been the right fit. Through this experience, I would say I have had a negative experience, such as lack of reliability or follow-through, with about one third of the newcomer hires. But this is the average across the industry; among German employees too, two-thirds I have a very positive experience, while one-third is disappointing. It’s important for employers to be realistic: not every newcomer will be a perfect fit – a standard that is true for local hires too.

This interview was conducted by Anne Guller-Frey and Wally Geyermann as part of a collaborative partnership between Hire Immigrants and the IQ Network (IQ Netzwerk) to profile business leaders in Germany that are proactively integrating migrants and refugees into their work force.

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