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Why young foreigners choose Germany

European politicians of all hues have heaped praise on the German apprenticeship model. The Local's Patrick Reilly meets young Swedish jobseekers ready to head south for a salary, despite the language barrier.

Why young foreigners choose Germany
Apprentices from Spain, Sweden and across Europe are all heading to Germany where there is a shortage of workers. Photo: DPA

On a snowy January day, the waiting room of the Malmö branch of the Swedish Public Employment Service is curiously quiet. A group of young people are inspecting their CVs ahead of a presentation entitled ‘The job of my life’.

Berlin and Hamburg are calling for a number of young Swedes who, fed up of being unemployed back home, are tempted by Germany’s apprentice programme. The scheme offers not only a salary, but free German lessons.

Germany’s apprentice scheme has been lauded for keeping youth unemployment low, and has been cited by Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg as something his own government should try to emulate.

In Sweden, almost 20 percent of those aged between 15-24 cannot find work. In Greece and Spain it is one in two. But at 8 per cent, Germany's youth unemployment rate is the lowest among EU countries making it a tempting location for the young and jobless.

In late 2012 Germany signed a deal with six EU countries – Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Slovakia and Latvia – to introduce Germany’s apprenticeship model to their countries.

It also made it easier for young people to find employers in Germany with the aim of setting up 30,000 exchanges. 

And its strong economy has turned Germany into an immigration country. The number of foreigners living in Germany grew at its fastest rate for 20 years in 2012 and now stands at a record level of 7.2 million.

But why Germany?

“Why not? There is nothing for me here in Sweden,” Molly Stigsson, 24, from Halmstad, western Sweden, tells The Local. "So many people my age are all fighting for the same jobs."

Stigsson studied journalism and photography but has struggled to find work since completing her studies. She admits that she’s been unemployed on and off for the past five years and wants to try something else.

“I’m applying for some baker and pastry chef positions as that's been a dream of mine. Going to Germany seems exciting to me,” she says, having ruled out going back to school in Sweden. 

Chef Robin Hermansson, 21, travelled from Linköping, southern Sweden, for his interview and says he has been out of work since last March.

“It’s tough to find work in Sweden for my profession. I’m here partly because of the job situation in my own country but also because this is an amazing opportunity,” Hermansson says enthusiastically.

Pitching the ‘Job of my life’ is Eures (European Employment Agency) adviser Annette Zellmer. She says that Germany is “desperate” for apprentices in part because of the country’s low birth rate.

Attracting Swedes to Germany is not a new idea for Eures. A previous apprentice scheme failed as only candidates who could speak German were able to apply.

Now the language barrier has been removed, with mandatory lessons included as part of the training. The move has seen an upturn in interest from job-seeking Swedes. 

Carpenters and bankers

“This is company-based education that lasts between two and half and three years. By coming to Germany, you can add to your reputation and develop further in your career,” Zellmer tells the young Swedes during the presentation.

The programme, which is funded by the German government until 2016, wants to find apprentices aged between 18-35 to work in industries as diverse as carpentry and banking.

Eures has calculated that there are 348 different occupations potentially available, with similar apprentice schemes for job-seekers from Portugal and Spain proving successful.

“Sweden looks very seriously at youth unemployment as the figure is quite high. Any chance to go abroad for work and education is encouraged as it’s a fantastic opportunity. Swedes adapt quite easily to Germany and have a good reputation there,” Maria Bergström, a Swedish Eures adviser, tells The Local. 

Removing barriers

Getting to grips with the German language is key for any wannabe apprentice. Following the failure of the previous scheme, Eures has pulled out all the stops with an estimated 600 lessons (each lasting 40 minutes) to be completed by August 1st by the candidates.

Under a special arrangement with Sweden, the first 400 lessons can be studied online from home, with the remaining classes to be finished in Germany. For most Swedes, it will be their first exposure to German. Indeed, many of those who attended the presentation in Malmö have never even been to the country before. 

“I’m a bit nervous about it as I don’t know any German at all but I am going to try to learn,” says Stigsson while Hermansson says “It’ll be fine… I think.”

And if any of the Swedes were under the impression they could cruise through the lessons when they move to Germany, such thoughts were swiftly extinguished by Eures’ German adviser.

“You can’t sit around and look out the window. When it comes to school exams you have to pass them,” Zellmer says matter-of-factly.

Funding for the language course is part of the modular programme, which also covers the cost of living. The most any apprentice can earn is €818 a month, but that amount can be reduced depending on accommodation costs.

While many expats to Sweden may be surprised to learn there isn’t a washing machine provided when handed the keys to a flat, in Germany you’ll have to do without a fridge and oven too when you move into an apartment.

“A typical German flat is basically empty but the employer helps the apprentices find furniture. And as part of the programme there is social assistance to help with things like opening a bank account and making friends. You are treated just like any other German apprentice,” says Zellmer.

Swedes who are successful and complete the first two phases of the programme, which includes the 600 language lessons, are then eligible for a vocational training contract with a German company combining work and studies, which can last up to three and a half years

One Swede eager to make the move is Zlatan Mukladzija Kemal. He took a six-hour train trip from Borås on the west coast in order to come to Malmö for his 30 minute interview.

“Had this scheme been around a few years ago I would have gone then,” Mukladzija Kemal, who has previously worked in the hospitality sector, tells The Local. After sitting through the one-hour presentation the 21-year-old is even more determined to fulfill his German dream. 

"I’ve been in Sweden most of my life and I’m a bit bored of it," he says. 

And unemployed skilled workers from other areas of Europe are also being sought out by recruiting programmes to plug shortages in the German workforce.
 
A scheme started in 2012 by the Chamber of Crafts for Munich and Upper Bavaria aimed to put Spanish semi-skilled workers in touch with Bavarian employers in need of labour.
 
"Given the high youth unemployment in Spain at the moment, there was this idea that there are a lot of people in Spain who could do the work, [and] we have a lot of companies that need to fill their vacancies," Elisabeth Kirchbichler, one of the coordinators of the program, told Spiegel in May 2013. 
 
Kirchbichler said that officials from the local chamber of commerce in Cordoba, Spain had given her over 1,000 job applications from Spanish people who wanted work in Germany.
 

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WORKING IN GERMANY

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network. 

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