How to convince German bosses to employ you… even without the language

German HR departments still haven't adapted to a world where people may live in three or four different countries throughout their careers. But all is not lost, an employment coach who works with expats tells The Local.

How to convince German bosses to employ you... even without the language
Photo: DPA

“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.

The German economy needs you

“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.

SEE ALSO: Report says ageing baby boomers will be drain on economic growth

“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”.

FIND A JOB: Browse thousands of English-language vacancies in Germany

For members


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.