Can refugees help to plug Europe’s skilled-labour gaps?

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Can refugees help to plug Europe’s skilled-labour gaps?


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THE canteen of Stockholm University could scarcely be more Swedish. Young blond students sip coffee and tap away on Macs. In room 3.89, an outpost of the campus, is another, newer Sweden. Refugees, all of them teachers, from lands far to the south and east are preparing for the classrooms of their new home. Several keep their coats on as Khadije Obeid takes them through the basics of the curriculum and shows a YouTube clip about education law. “In Syria the teacher has much authority,” says Samer, an English teacher, as he raises his hand above his head. “Here he is equal to the students,” he adds as he lowers it.

The ten women and seven men are on a “fast-track” programme for refugees with experience in occupations where labour is short. As well as learning Swedish, they get 26 weeks of daily classes, teaching practice and mentoring. The hope is that they will then train or, if their previous qualifications are recognised, go straight to the classroom. The government is running some 30 other programmes, for builders, chefs, medics and more; 5,300 people were enrolled in 2016 and 2017, of whom around 1,000 were in the teachers’ scheme. Within two years most fast-trackers are employed.

In 2015 no European country took in more asylum-seekers, relative to its population, than Sweden. None accepted greater absolute numbers than Germany. Both countries badly need workers. Sweden is training 8,500 fewer teachers annually than it should. A study by the German Chamber of Commerce estimates that 1.6m open jobs cannot be filled with appropriately skilled workers. Today Germany lacks 110,000 nurses and carers; by 2030 it will need 300,000 as its population greys.

When 2.6m asylum-seekers arrived in Europe in 2015-16, the political mood quickly turned sour. Yet many argued not only that it was right to welcome them on humanitarian grounds, but also that both the new arrivals—most of them young and, it was said, educated—and their host countries could gain economically.

Hope and experience

Those hopes have not yet been borne out. Both Germany and Sweden have pumped resources into getting newcomers into training or employment and have shifted legal barriers in order to let them work sooner. But Sweden’s fast-track programmes serve only a fraction of the 110,500 adult arrivals in 2015 and 2016 (around half of whom were granted asylum). In 2017 only a third of refugees who completed a two-year full-time integration programme were working or studying three months later, according to Statistics Sweden. In the first quarter of 2018 this rose to 41%, but only 6% were in unsubsidised jobs. Refugees in Germany have historically fared a bit better. Yet nearly three-quarters of those in work have jobs needing few skills and with poor prospects.

Given time, things may come right. Of refugees arriving in the EU in the 1990s and early 2000s, 56% were in work after a decade; those who had clocked up two decades had caught up with natives. But time and patience are short. “We’re at a critical junction,” says Thomas Liebig of the OECD. The political mood has hardened. Last year the populist Alternative for Germany entered the Bundestag; coalition talks this year nearly collapsed over migration. The right-wing Sweden Democrats have been polling strongly, ahead of an election in September.

“The talent pool is not huge. The refugees who arrived here in Sweden are less skilled than we initially thought,” says Patrick Joyce, a Swedish economist. Of the 92,000 adult asylum-seekers who arrived in 2015, half did not finish high school. Language is often the biggest hurdle. The skills asylum-seekers do have often do not fit local needs. Many newcomers to Germany are experienced car mechanics, for example, but Germany’s shortage is in mechatronics, which requires knowledge of information technology rather than fiddling with fuel pumps.

Even when refugees’ skills are in demand, regulations can still keep them out of jobs. Germany lacks workers in some certified professions, which require lengthy training. Nurses from abroad, regardless of experience, must do up to three years of vocational training before being taken on. Such barriers push refugees into less skilled, poorly paid jobs. Sweden has fewer regulated trades. Even so, employment rates among graduates of the health-care fast-track scheme are half the average.

The best hope of matching supply more precisely to demand is to build up the skills of young migrants. “Apprenticeships really are the golden route in Germany,” says Mr Liebig. Most refugees are young; within a few years they can gain a skill that is in demand and a job for years to come. But time to train is a luxury: often their priority is to get a job, however poorly paid, to send money home or to reunite their families. And both countries have become less generous in granting permanent residency, reducing both migrants’ incentive to train and employers’ incentive to train them.

Now comes a new difficulty: getting women to work. Those who arrived in 2015-16 were mainly men; their wives are following them. Female refugees typically have the lowest employment rates of any group. “Getting them into work and to leave children at a creche can be a big barrier,” says Caroline Jonsson from the Public Employment Service. “But here in Sweden we don’t have stay-at-home mums.”

Focusing on female refugees, as both Germany and Sweden have begun to do, can pay. If they have jobs, the better their children—especially daughters—tend to do when they join the labour market, says the OECD. As with men, so with women: moving on from receiving refugees to integrating them is a long game. But in fractious Europe, how long do policymakers have?



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