BERLIN (Reuters) - Burkhard Scholz, the manager of a four-star hotel on the wooded shore of a lake near Berlin, had 10 trainee jobs up for grabs last year. But he only found two people to fill them, one of whom was an asylum seeker from Afghanistan.
“In Germany we can’t find any young people who want to do this extremely demanding trainee program... You have to work in the evenings and sometimes at night as there are guests around the clock, and that’s a big hurdle for German applicants,” he told Reuters at the world’s biggest travel fair, the ITB in Berlin.
Like other hotel bosses, Scholz sees the 1.1 million migrants who arrived in Germany last year as potential candidates for trainee schemes he offers in cooking, hotel work and event management.
But integrating migrants via work is a “rocky road” cluttered with cultural issues, he said, including some migrants’ aversion to working with women. Two Muslim migrants from Somalia and Eritrea had proved unsuitable during work experience in his hotel restaurant.
“After a few days I noticed they were giving trays to a German employee and saying: ‘You take it.’ So I asked them why and it turned out they couldn’t touch alcohol for religious reasons, so it was a big problem,” Scholz said.
His experience with migrant workers illustrates both the opportunity and the challenge facing Europe’s largest economy. Germany urgently needs new workers as its population ages but it is struggling to cope with the massive influx of newcomers, many of whom lack the training or language skills the country needs.
The surge has stirred concerns among some Germans that their country is being inundated by foreigners. Migration has been at the forefront of campaigning in three German regions where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives face a strong challenge from a right-wing party in elections on Sunday.
New migrants are more likely to find a job in catering than other sectors. A recent survey by the Ifo institute showed more than a quarter of firms in Germany’s hospitality industry employ or have recently employed refugees, compared with 7 percent of firms overall.
And the industry needs new staff: German hotel and restaurant association DEHOGA says there were around 32,000 vacancies in mid-2015.
For many asylum seekers like 28-year-old Ezatullah Mascoudi, a journalist from Afghanistan now training to be a cook at Scholz’s Inselhotel Potsdam-Hermannswerder, the prospect of any kind of work is appealing after having nothing to do for months.
“I don’t like only taking money from the social welfare office and just sleeping all day,” he said. “I‘m so happy that I‘m earning money myself now.”
In Berlin, 19 Iraqi and Syrian refugees like Rita Albahri, a 23-year-old who studied tourism in Damascus, are being paid to give refugees tours of the city’s museums in Arabic.
And in Cologne, a few Syrian archaeologists who have fled to Germany are bringing to life an exhibition on the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In tours and events, they provide insight about what the town was like before it suffered heavy damage at the hands of Islamic State.
But it’s not all plain sailing.
In the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, catering businesses last year offered 307 trainee positions for refugees, said Gereon Haumann, head of the regional DEHOGA branch.
Of the 110 applicants, 80 finished a three-month language course with a sufficient level of German to go on to work experience. But of those, only 40 started a trainee program in September. Others decided against working in the sector for religious reasons, because they did not like the job or because it was difficult to get to work by public transport.
“There are religious obstacles such as refugees not being prepared to serve alcoholic drinks or pork or other meat ... and practical obstacles like the language,” said Haumann. Still, he said, catering firms there planned to offer around 300 trainee positions for refugees again this year.
While younger migrants will be able to integrate well, it will be tough for those already over 20, said Norbert Fiebig, president of the DRV German Travel Association.
“We shouldn’t be too idealistic - a lot of those who are coming to us will be dependent on the social system for a long time,” he said. “They won’t all be so easy to integrate.”
Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan