“An Indian friend of mine worked in the US for several years and then came to Germany with her husband. As soon as she arrived, she found the perfect company to work for,” German employment coach Chris Pyak told The Local.
“She applied to them over and over again, and they kept rejecting her. Then they realized that in the whole of Germany, she was one of only 20 people who understood this particular banking software they needed to use.
“Even then they didn't hire her. They sent two of their own people to London to get trained in the software. After they didn't meet the required standards and clients started to complain, only then did they hire her.”
The Indian woman's problem was that despite having all the qualifications to do the job well, she didn't speak German.
“There are currently more than 720,000 jobs available in Germany,” Pyak says, citing his own research, and pointing out that, as many more Germans retire than enter the workforce, more and more companies are complaining of a Fachkräftemangel – a shortage of skilled labour.
“But the challenge is that only 3 percent of the jobs are in English. If you move to Germany as an EU citizen or as an expatriate, more often than not you don’t speak German to start with. That means that 97 percent of the job market is closed to you.”
Pyak, who runs a company that aims to match up expatriate professionals with German employers, argues that companies needlessly make German proficiency a requirement.
Creative and highly-skilled jobs make up “the vast majority” of job offers at the moment and “these jobs can be done in English just as well as in another language,” he argues.
“The OECD posted a survey [in 2013] that more than half of the Spaniards who move to Germany leave within the first year. Why? They come here, they apply to hundreds of different companies, and every single time they hear 'nein, nein, nein.' They have excellent skills, an excellent education, they could do a great job. But most companies are not willing to hire you if you don’t speak fluent German.
“In practical terms, this is a catastrophe both for Germany and for expatriates themselves,” he says.
Chris Pyak (right) discusses the European labour market with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice president of the European Parliament. Photo: Private
'Germans still stuck on the Mayflower'
According to Pyak, Germans are still stuck in the mindset that “immigration means that you board the Mayflower. You go from place A to place B, and you stay there for your whole life.”
In fact, the reality is that people study in one country, take on their first job in another, and are sent by their employer to a third, he says.
“Companies need to start hiring in English and letting new recruits learn the local language on the job. I don’t mean only in Germany, I mean generally across Europe. Labour mobility in the EU is only one-tenth of what it is in the USA because of the language barrier.”
For Pyak, the blame for German companies being stuck in this outdated mindset lies in their HR departments.
“I've spoken with over 500 HR managers over the past years and, I’m sorry to say, most of the time you don't face a professional. They never sit down with the hiring manager and define what the candidate needs to achieve to be successful. It’s like having a referee who doesn't know that the point of soccer is to score goals.
“If you don’t know what you want to achieve, you create arbitrary conditions, and the first thing that comes is you need to speak German.”
On top of that, Pyak argues that the German trait of being risk averse is very pronounced in HR departments.
“The highest goal in a HR professional's life is to be secure. Then you come along and you are not from here, you don’t speak the language, you have no job experience in Germany, you come from a university they have never heard of – will they take the risk, or will they avoid it?”
Putting yourself out there
So is there any hope for expats who have experience in other countries and want to make a go of it in Germany? Yes, Pyak argues. It's just that, whereas elsewhere you might be used to being courted by companies, in Germany it is you that has to do the convincing.
“You need to find a way to talk directly to the hiring manager,” he advises. “He is the one who'll be interested in listening to you. He has a timeline he has to meet, results he has to achieve. If you show him that you can deliver, he'll listen to you.”
And Pyak says that more expats already have the connections to bypass HR than they realize.
“Eighty-five percent of jobs are still filled by recommendation,” Pyak claims.
“The good news for expats is that usually the recommendation doesn’t come from a close friend, it comes from an acquaintance.
“The guy that you met at a party two weeks ago, or the sister of your girlfriend's cousin – they move in different circles to you and they hear different news. That's why they hear about job offers that you wouldn't usually find out about. They are the ones who can introduce you to a potential employer.”
The next big challenge is convincing the hiring manager to let you start working in English.
“Don’t fool yourself: you are asking a lot from the hiring manager,” says Pyak. “The whole team will have to adapt to working with an English speaker – you have to acknowledge this. You have to say to them 'just try me out and see what I can deliver.' Then you need to deliver… and you also need to make progress in your German language.
“Most employers look at your German skills like a photograph. They think your level of German has never changed and it will always stay the same. Your job is to say 'hey, you are watching a movie. Three months ago I couldn't find Berlin on a map. Now I can order coffee. In six months, I'll be able to have a conversation at work'.”
Chris Pyak is the author of the recently published book “How To Win Jobs & Influence Germans: The Expats' Guide to a Career in Germany”.