By Luka Vasilj
The unrelenting Austrian sun beat down on a line of hundreds of refugees. Each held a flimsy piece of paper, and some held babies in the other hand. The group—predominantly young men—patiently waited to be registered and allowed through the gates. Each was anxious about the uncertainties ahead.
Unlike the displaced persons traveling thousands of miles to escape their war-torn homelands, these refugees were not queuing up at a border, waiting to be let into the next country on their journey. In fact, this particular group of migrants had already been granted asylum or subsidiary protection. On June 29, they were waiting in line in Vienna’s Musuemsquartier for chancen:reich, the first ever career fair for refugees. Armed with little more than an invitation, a CV, and a valid work permit, they each set out to tackle the greatest challenge before them since escaping their homeland: finding gainful employment and integrating into the local labor market.
Having received approximately 90,000 asylum requests in 2015—the second highest in Europe on a per capita basis—Austria has a difficult challenge ahead in managing the large number of new arrivals. Vienna alone is host to some 21,000 refugees and is charged with the task of teaching them German and integrating them into the local economy. Having witnessed a tightening of asylum legislation and the current threat of a re-run of the latest presidential election in which Austrians nearly elected the first far-right head of state in the EU since World War II, it is easy to forget that Austria has some of the best integration practices and policies in the EU. Furthermore, Austria is home to many initiatives that help solve the problems refugees face on their path to integration. Chancen:reich is one such innovation.
With over 70 businesses and organizations and around 3,500 refugees attending the career fair, chancen:reich presented itself as more than just a platform connecting employers to refugees. In addition to the 900 interviews that took place on-site, the career fair also offered training to both businesses and refugees in the form of lectures and workshops, teaching firms how best to integrate new arrivals into their workforce. Simultaneously, chancen:reich attempted to make the refugees as independent as possible by offering interview training, CV checks, and advice on how to start businesses. As over 1,000 jobs, internships, and training opportunities were on offer on the day of the fair, many refugees were finally able to secure a work placement.
The benefits of such an event extend to both employers and refugees. Established businesses get the added value of having a larger and more competitive pool of applicants to choose from, benefiting from the unique skills the refugees bring with them that the local labor market may not readily provide. Refugees, on the other hand, are there to take their first steps into the Austrian labor market and learn how to go about finding a job in Europe.
But just how employable are the refugees? Many are skeptical of the contribution they can make to the European economic climate. They come from a developing country, speak a different language, and have not been socialized into Austrian workplace culture. These prejudices not only erase the diverse background the refugees come from—middle class, working class, professors, villagers, urban dwellers, Arabs, Kurds, etc.—but also threaten to render them unemployable in the eyes of hiring managers, who hesitate to hire someone with a refugee background.
A quick glance at the attendee statistics provided by chancen:reich is enough to dispel any notion of the refugees being unemployable; out of the 3,500 people attending, 85 percent speak at least one foreign language, 55 percent speak two, and about 19 percent speak at least three. About 70 percent have completed secondary education, with the majority of those having a university or higher education degree. Seventy-four percent have previous work experience, and at least 15 percent have at one point been self-employed.
Complementing these humbling statistics is an underlying willingness to work and contribute to society—an attitude that extends beyond just the people attending the fair. Attendance at chancen:reich was limited only to those refugees with unrestricted access to the labor market, as it would not make sense for businesses to interview and meet applicants whom they are legally unable to hire Still, many refugees waiting for an asylum decision have nevertheless attended as volunteers. Karrar Al Saadi, a 20-year-old Iraqi with perfect English and a can-do attitude, is frustrated with the restrictions placed on him as he awaits an asylum decision: “I’ve volunteered with Caritas, the Red Cross, and now here. When you are waiting for an asylum decision, you can do little more than wait. All I want is to work.” Allami Mustafa, who previously ran his own business in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments after he drove over 60 miles to help translate at the fair. In fact, most of these Middle Eastern refugees, whether they have been granted asylum or not, are extremely eager to start work, articulating their desires to enter the labor force in terms of self-worth, development, and personal independence. This is a far cry from the image some people have of uneducated and unskilled migrants pouring into Europe to take advantage of the welfare state.
The fair was a resounding success, and not just from the perspective of refugees that left chancen:reich with a job waiting for them the following Monday morning. Most importantly, chancen:reich helped dismantle barriers and stereotypes. Emotional encounters bridging the divide between refugees and ordinary Europeans working to help them have produced a plethora of touching news articles across international media. Today, however, the most moving response comes from the employers exhibiting at the fair, who were at first apprehensive about the refugees’ qualifications and language skills. Yet they were all positively surprised, not just by the attendees’ extensive knowledge of German, but also by the professional manner in which they presented themselves. Trendwerk, a headhunting agency, says that over 1,000 contact forms have been filled out at the fair, 80 percent of which have a high probability of getting a work placement. IKEA’s local talent manager, Cornelis Vleugel, was so impressed by the visitors’ professionalism and skills valuable to his company that he hired several carpenters and textile designers on the spot. Such positive experiences will in turn make other businesses less hesitant to hire someone a refugee. After all, it is one thing to see an applicant claim to have good German skills on a resume filled with Syrian qualifications that are difficult to corroborate, and another to meet the applicant in question, listening to him articulate his numerous job-related experiences in proficient German.
The sheer number of opportunities on offer at the fair proves that it is not a matter of jobs not existing, or refugees being unwilling or too unskilled to work, but rather a matter of connecting the right people and giving them the necessary tools to independently seek employment.
Chancen:reich, German for “rich in opportunity,” has successfully taken its first step in integrating refugees into the local labor market only four months after Stephanie Cox and Leo Widrich founded the organization. “It was important for us to assemble a group of capable young people to help tackle what will one day become a real issue in Austria,” says Cox, adding that “rather than just recognizing refugee unemployment as a potential problem and endlessly discussing it, we immediately identified the major pain points and set about solving them. Chancen:reich was our solution.” By bringing together the various stakeholders in solving the refugee crisis, the initiative strives to prove that, rather than being a burden on society, these people are in fact valuable to Austria as a whole. They are rich in opportunity.
Luka Vasilj graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi with a degree in political science and Arabic. He moved to Vienna in order to work with refugees and study the European refugee crisis.
[Photo Courtesy of Joergelman]