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Cultural Close-up: Germany

The Case for Diversity and Inclusion in Germany: Immigrant Challenges

By Ellen Pabst von Ohain


Generally, Germans don't mince words. It is not a question of rudeness (and they'd look puzzled if you told them they were), it's a matter of efficiency. Chancellor Merkel's recent comments about the "utter failure of multiculturalism" in Germany came as no surprise to anyone here since she was simply stating the obvious. The international shock probably had more to do with the fact that a) she clearly stated a truth in a most politically incorrect way and, b) did not claim that "the other party's program" was a complete failure but used the inclusive "we failed".

The local shock was hearing about the death of a program that never existed.

Historically, the Germans have not colonized much of the world therefore they have not gained the experience of myriad races integrating into their home country like the French or the Brits nor has the world been exposed to the German tongue. The deepest experience West Germans had with integrating a "foreign culture" on their own soil on a massive scale took place in the late '80's, a mere 20 years ago. This integration and all the headaches that accompanied this merger, was faced by a country which has absorbed another country that speaks the same language.

In Germany, there has been much talk about immigration and integration for the last 45 years but it has simply not been a pressing enough issue for Germans to pull together a cohesive program, until very recently. They've been too busy with other matters. Due to increasing frustration, this issue is finally receiving the "outing" it deserves today.

Out of the approximately 2.9 million firms that call themselves German, (2000), 89.4% are the Mittlestand. The Mittlestand are firms with less than 500 employees and annual revenue of €50 million or less. The Mittlestand accounts for 43.2 percent of total revenue of all German firms and they generally operate primarily on home soil. They are often owner-operated which means they are not publically traded.

Management in the Mittlestand is often promoted from within and reflects decisions made by the owners, unlike many US firms where as managers climb by hopping between firms, they carry their skills and experiences which blend, influence and are influenced by new exposure. You can say that America has a built-in system of diversity and inclusion as long as they are hiring.

The Mittlestand is German through and through and only recently (the last 10-15 years) are these owner-operators learning how to operate in an international arena. Germans culturally have set world quality standards for decades. Brand Made in Germany means something and no one knows better than the Germans that true brand is not built overnight but rather over centuries. The Germans are quite proud of their products and of themselves.

The Brand Made in Germany was not built by Germans alone. The Guest-Worker policy of the sixties embraced and imported largely illiterate Turkish, Italian, Greek and Spanish immigrants who were either semi- or unskilled laborers. They were imported to do the unpopular jobs on assembly lines and rebuild a largely shattered country. Literally. Not much more was required of them. In return for their physical labor, their wages boosted tax revenues and social security contributions and made a substantial increase to production levels. They made fewer demands than their German co-workers but were no less productive. German firms were ecstatic to have abundant, cheap labor and celebrated what seemed like an unending, renewable resource.

Many German companies had interpereters onsite making learning the German language unnecessary, and vice-versa. Germans had fewer problems with those immigrants who lived and worked amongst them. But these illiterate immigrants had illiterate children, who had children. As their numbers grew so did their demands on Germany's limited resources. The oil crisis of the 70's turned these "guests" into "burdens". It was not the jobs they were competing for, since many remained unskilled; it was the social programs enlisted to help these immigrants survive after they had already rebuilt the country and were not yet transitioning home.

Today, the average German has 1.42 children, the average Turk 2.6. Not all immigrant children are unskilled and uneducated however. In actuality 15.2% have achieved a University degree. Many however have failed to obtain the second certificate that most German students go on to get when they will not continue to University. It is this certificate that generally supports the Mittlestand. Paradoxically, firms have been turning their noses up at Turks with degrees.

Alarming is the rate of Turkish who are leaving Germany. Those who assimilated who went through the German system and could not find jobs are returning, highly skilled and trained to Turkey.

As an alternative, during the past 20 years, the number of companies founded in Germany by Turkish citizens or with German-Turkish background has tripled to around 65,000 employing 320,000 workers. By 2016, this number should increase to 120,000 companies employing 720,000 workers. The number of companies which are founded by entrepreneurs is twice as high among the Turks as the Germans. They tend to "grow faster and more dynamically than others", says Kemal Sahin, the president of the Turkish-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce. The ratio of self-employed among people with a Turkish background in Germany will surpass 9% in 2010 according to the Association of Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists in Europe (ATIAD).   "It's harder for them to find a decent job (in Germany). That's why they are highly motivated to seize their opportunities. By setting up their own business they can move to the center of society more easily and achieve a higher status", continues Sahin. He believes that second and third generation Turks who hold University degrees are able to communicate easier with authorities to establish themselves.

Most politicians agree that immigration policies need to be revamped and all recognize that Germany needs to encourage urgently needed, skilled workers.

The benefits that foreigners bring needs to be made clearer to Germans. The benefits and the pursuit of education, adaptation and assimilation needs to be made clear to our existing immigrants. The value added by diversity and inclusion programs must be made clear to companies.

I imagine now that the debate is raging on the world's stage, German firms will take a closer look at their diversity programs, their numbers and their policies. 'Breakdown can be breakthrough' goes the old saying. The Germans are slow and steady but efficient. In time, they'll figure out that the answer was always right under their upturned noses.

Ellen Pabst von Ohain is a Senior Associate with Global Dynamics Inc.