Six top tips for interns in Germany

Around 600,000 internships are undertaken in Germany every year and it has become a popular destination for English-speaking interns. In this week's JobTalk, The Local looks at how to make the most of your experience.

Six top tips for interns in Germany
Knowing the office culture, your rights and choosing on industry rather than location will all help you complete a successful internship. Photo: Holger Hollemann/DPA/lni

With an economy based on specialized small and medium sized companies, Germany is “an ideal place to do an internship abroad in Europe,” according to Europe Internship – an organization that creates links between students and European companies.

But there are a few things to bear in mind if you decide to work in Germany as an intern.

1) Be aware of office culture

There is nothing that annoys Germans more than lateness. Interns should make an effort to turn up on time – even if their job is unpaid. Being five or ten minutes late – especially on your first day – will create a bad first impression.

According to broadcaster Deutsche Welle, almost 85 percent of Germans take appointment times seriously and expect the people they are meeting to do the same. So if you are running late, call ahead with a good excuse.

Germans also tend to adhere to strict office hierarchies and it is best to keep things formal. Always address colleagues and business associates using their title and surname, unless or until they invite you to use their first name. It is also important to use the polite Sie rather than the informal du – at first at least.

CLICK HERE for ten German business etiquette tips

Another way to appear professional and polite is by shaking hands with your colleagues when you come into the office in the morning – something Germans place great importance on.

As well as shaking hands with colleagues, it is also common practice to shake everybody’s hand in the room before and after a business meeting or conference. And if you have to leave early, do the rounds again, starting with the most senior person and working down.

Try to match the German handshake, which is firm but brief – said to convey confidence and reliability.

2) Express your interests                                                   

If you are working for free – as 40 percent of graduate interns are according to a study conducted by Institute for Employment Research (IAB) – you should take as much from the internship as possible. Tell your boss early on where your main interests lie and express a preference on what sort of projects you would like to work.

Of course you should try to make a good impression – particularly if you may be offered a job at the end of it – but you should remember that an internship is a two-way exchange.

Felix T. 22, who has just completed an internship in Berlin, said: “Make sure it’s a mutual exchange between the time and work you put in and the experience you gain. Basically I think that if you’re doing much more than learning, there is a danger of it no longer being a mutual exchange between employer and intern. I’ve found it’s important to have realistic expectations and not to expect to be given the most glamorous tasks at first.

“I’ve also found it’s important to be positive and willing to take on different tasks – even if it means putting yourself out. Your employer will appreciate this and it will help you get a good reference at the end.”

3) Be aware of your rights

Katja Petrova, founder and manager of Berlin Internship Justice, said: “Know what the law says about the internships in Germany. Remember, they have to be educational, and for the benefit of an intern. Be aware that as a foreigner, and a graduate being paid under €450 per month, you will not have a health insurance or pension scheme.

“If you get an internship in a start-up, remember start-ups work crazy hours, often multi-task and often change their business approach."

Just one if five interns in Germany get a full-time job offer, according to a study carried out for the website in 2012. But the study also showed that the majority of German interns were happy with their placements.

4) Pick based on your interest rather than location

The most important consideration is to choose a placement that will further your future career – if you have one in mind that is.

If you want to work in television for example, it would be best to find a job with one of the German television channels or production companies, but experience in other forms of journalism would also be useful.

If you know you are not interested in websites or phone apps, do not waste time and money by accepting an unpaid internship in a tech start-up in Berlin – however much you may like the city.

5) Think about the time frame

According to the IAB, the average internship in Germany lasts 4.8 months. Three months is often enough time to get a proper taste for a company, however, one longer internship at the right firm is more worthwhile than several short placements in the wrong place as it shows loyalty and staying power.

Katja Petrova said: “One to three months is the best length. It is enough time to understand how the organization works, get used to the work flow and see the critical points.”

6) Ask for feedback

You should ask for feedback on your work whenever possible. This is particularly important when you are doing unfamiliar tasks. If you don’t know where you are going wrong, you won’t be able to correct it the next time.

Katja added: “Every intern by law has to have an instructor, whether it is the boss himself or not, it does not matter.

"Ask him/her what your best performance of the week was, what was the weakest. Ask your colleagues what they think of your job/idea. Ask for criticism and suggestions – this is how you learn, this is how you become braver in your thoughts and decisions.”

Fred Searle, The Local's intern who wrote this, has a degree in French and Politics with German, has been interning – unpaid – at The Local since September to learn about journalism and gain experience in a newsroom environment.

READ MORE: Ten tips for German business etiquette

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Jobs: German unemployment falls in October

German unemployment ticked down in October as the country bounced back from the initial shock of the pandemic, official data showed Thursday, but a fresh round of shutdowns threaten to halt the momentum.

Jobs: German unemployment falls in October
Archive photo shows a sign outside of the Agentur für Arbeit in Hanover. Photo: DPA

The seasonally adjusted jobless rate slipped to 6.2 percent this month from 6.3 percent in September, according to the BA federal labour agency, which called it a “noticeable improvement”.

“Unemployment and underemployment fell sharply… However, the labour market is still showing clear signs of the first wave of the corona pandemic,” BA chairman Detlef Scheele said.

Pandemic-induced lockdowns in the spring shuttered businesses and factories, but sentiment improved as the economy opened up in the following months.

Government-backed short-time work schemes have softened the blow, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs.

READ ALSO: 'Signs of improvement': Here's the current outlook on jobs in Germany

The number of people in short-time work (Kurzarbeit) fell in October to 2.6 million from a peak in April of 5.95 million, the BA agency said, suggesting an upturn in business confidence.

Worsen the economic outlook

However, the improvement might be shortlived, after Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday announced tough new lockdown measures to curb the second wave of the virus.

READ ALSO: Germany to close bars and restaurants as Merkel announces new round of Covid-19 shutdowns

The restrictions – which include the closure of the gastronomy, leisure and cultural industries in November – will likely worsen the economic outlook for the rest of the year.

The government intends to offer financial support for companies affected by the lockdowns, but that may not be enough to save some of the millions of jobs at risk.

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: How is the pandemic affecting jobs?

The surge in new coronavirus cases “shows that we are still in the middle of the crisis – economically too,” said Fritzi Koehler-Geib, chief economist at German public investment bank KfW.

“As a result, unemployment is also expected to stagnate in the coming months or, if things go badly, increase significantly,” she added.

“The restrictions adopted will hit some sectors of the economy hard, but will protect the economy as a whole and most sectors economically”, said Marcel Fratzscher, president of the DIW research institute.

In concrete terms, the decline in the unemployment rate in October translates into around 35,000 fewer people registered as unemployed month-on-month.

But on a 12-month basis, around 556,000 more people were unemployed compared with the same point in the previous year.

Before the coronavirus struck, the German jobless rate had hovered at a record low of around five percent.