Gewobag: Firm Meets Labour Needs through Refugee Traineeship Program

“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You need time, engagement and enthusiasm.”

– Ms. Martina Heger, Director, Human Resources

Gewobag Wohnungsbau-Aktiengesellschaft Berlin (Gewobag) is the largest real estate company in Berlin, with over 600 employees and 72, 000 residential units specializing in middle-income housing. With an expected 14,000 additional units by 2025, Gewobag is struggling to fill the growing number of vacant positions, largely a result of its current ageing workforce, and the skills mismatch with recent German graduates. The same issue is echoed across many other companies throughout Germany: “Gewobag, and other German companies are facing the same problem of employees getting older, so they need a fresh workforce. We have an extremely hard time finding qualified engineers, among the other professions needed,” said Ms. Martina Heger, Human Resources Director at Gewobag.

Besides an ageing workforce, Gewobag had to consider how best to serve its diverse client base. With 40% of its tenants being foreign-born, there was an incentive for Gewobag to invest in educating its current workforce and engaging with immigrant talent when meeting its labor market needs.  For its current workforce, Gewobag hired intercultural trainers, recognizing the importance of educating employees on ways of working with diverse clients. “If you are working with someone from a different culture, it is important to think about what your personal and company values are, what is negotiable and what is not”. But this was not as easily implemented as Ms. Heger had expected; despite their diverse client base, employees were resistant to participate in the training. “They would tell me ‘I am not a racist. It is their (referring to the tenants) fault and they need to change their ways’.” However, this defensive attitude started to change when Gewobag implemented its refugee training program.  Employees got to take the training alongside their new co-workers, realizing the training benefitted everyone, and was not a reflection of shortcomings of the existing workforce.

Fortunately, Gewobag had already benefited from hiring immigrants, so implementing a refugee-specific program simply meant revising best practices from programs already in place to employ ‘traditional’ migrants. Reflecting on the benefits of its immigrant employees, Ms. Heger said, “Migrants have such a strong engagement, are such good workers – they only need the opportunity to demonstrate their potential. They are often more effective than our current workers because they understand our tenants’ needs, often speak their languages and have the same backgrounds, so they can then ‘culturally translate’ our tenants’ needs for us.” The refugee population represented a new talent pool for Gewobag – the HR office began with initial research to understand the refugee population in Berlin and presented their findings and recommendations for a refugee program to the Board of Directors.  The Board was given information about the costs of the program, the program’s economic and social benefits, and a detailed plan for its implementation. As the Head of HR, Ms. Heger vouched for the program’s cost-effectiveness, and how it would help her find a valuable workforce with her limited budget to scout, train and retain the best for the Gewobag team. In October 2016, with support of the Board of Directors, Geowobag launched its refugee trainee program with its first cohort of 10 refugee participants. Modelled after the German traineeship programs, Gewobag had their refugee trainees learn theory while applying the concepts in practice through on-the-job work training. Trainees are paid for the duration of the program, which vary from six months to three years, with wages partially subsidized by the Federal government to offset any perceived risk on the company. At Gewobag, the number of trainees is capped at 10 refugees per year because the company wants to fully integrate each new hire into the workforce and offer individualized support, with the goal of achieving high employee retention rates.

Individualised support for long-term retention

The HR department assigns each refugee employee to a department based on their previous work experience, in the same manner it would place any new hire. Ms. Heger meets each refugee personally before placing them in a specific department and then decides how to work with them during their traineeship. “For integration to truly work, we must look at each person, understand how strong their previous knowledge, skills and German language is and base our employment decision on this information Their dedication must be very strong – I can’t train on everything. For example, I can’t train on engagement – that must come from within. We have found that in all our refugee trainees.” In Germany, trainees are expected to arrive to a traineeship prepared to apply the theoretical knowledge they learned in an education facility to the workforce. Refugees, though, often have not received the same formal education as local students, so they are unprepared to begin a standard vocational traineeship. In response, Gewobag created this specific pre-vocational training program for refugees, which bridges the gap in their knowledge of the theoretical requirements needed to complete their vocational traineeships.

One of the most recent trainee turned employee is Al Ali from Iraq, who started working with Gewobag for six months in the pre-vocational training program, before starting his vocational training in October 2017.The pre-vocational training program provided Mr. Ali with insight integral to being effective at Gewobag, and he learned vocabulary that would not have been taught in the traditional language courses offered to newcomers. Ultimately, the pre-vocational training program set him up for success, and to Ms. Heger, it’s a worthwhile investment.

While it is slightly more expensive to provide a specialized program, Ms. Heger can justify the added expense: “education is always expensive. We put 10-15 people through vocational training each year, and our refugee program is not much more expensive.” In some of the states in Germany, it is necessary to pay trainees at least 500 euros per month. The Ministry of Labor offers companies 300 euros for this program. “Yes, it is expensive, but taken into context, that is just another 200 euros per person, on top of the salary of the coordinator”, Ms. Heger says. Besides the specific training program, Gewobag has hired a refugee coordinator specifically for the refugee trainees. A dedicated staff member to assist the new refugee trainees was essential for success; the coordinator meets with them each week, facilitates their connection to a staff mentor, facilitates the internal socio-cultural program, and assists them to complete all necessary legal and employment paperwork. This role is key for a larger company wanting to integrate refugees into their workforce. “It is important to accompany people and not just leave them alone, they need mentoring and support programs”.

Employee Support: Working Together

Employees at Gewobag support the refugee employment program because they see a socially focused project with positive economic benefits: filling new positions with qualified, ambitious staff. Many function as volunteer “supporters” because they recognize that those newly arrived need more supervision and time to understand one another. “To integrate refugees, you need the support of the employees, the head of departments and the managers. Without that, it won’t work”. Part of the reasoning behind nesting the program within HR is so that they can analyze every department, know what type of position and person they need, and place workers accordingly. HR works in close collaboration with the refugees’ coordinator throughout this process to make sure they find the perfect fit. “There must be a value added for the department, who benefits from this workforce, and for the refugee the prospect of later working there fulltime to increase motivation.”

“For us now, they are not “the refugees”, they are Mr. Ali, Ms. Ekram. They go with their colleagues together for lunch; they work side by side. For our employees not used to these interactions, it becomes more normal and they learn not to act in a special way. If they don’t like each other, that’s ok, but it will become an interaction just like with any other colleague” says Ms. Heger. Through these interactions, they become colleagues, and the process of integration for both the newcomers and the local workers becomes normalized. Since October 2016, the company has won two international HR awards and the mayor of Berlin brings in international groups to learn about the Gewobag model. For the Board, beyond the benefit to the workforce, the program adds to their positive image and excellent reputation in the community. “The better we are as a company, the better talent we can attract, the more efficiently we can work, the happier our customers are and the higher our profits will be” said Ms. Heger.

Lessons learned

  • Be clear with your involvement timeline. Evaluate if you can hire refugees for the long-term, or only provide short-term internships or skills trainings. It can be especially alienating to the refugee community and tarnish your image as a company, if you provide internships (or similar programs) with the false hope of later employment.
  • Identify skills and employment gaps in your various departments. Determine which areas of your company need, or will need, new employees and target your refugee training programs to meet those specific needs. For example, if you expect to increase the number of software engineers in the next three years but predict the number of accountants will remain the same, create internships or training programs on software engineering instead of accounting.
  • Support the supporters. Highlight the employees in your company who have already been assisting refugees, either by volunteering their time externally or by pushing for your company to create programs. Raise those employees as champions of your efforts, as they will help get other employees on board and explain the value of the programs to the company.
  • Decide whether you can take on the costs of a refugee coordinator. Considering refugees can have specific difficulties while adapting to the workforce, such as language barriers, cultural norms and the troubles of adapting to a new environment, it can be particularly valuable to have an employee within the HR department dedicated to integrating them into the company. This is especially applicable for companies looking for long-term retention in their new hires.

Watch it in action

Content for this article originally appeared in, “Company Interventions for Refugee Employment in Germany”, prepared by Lina Zdruli, M.A. Georgetown University

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