By Julia Hoffmann
“Islam is not a part of Germany” read a headline in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung before the start of a high-profile conference on Islam sponsored by Germany’s Ministry of the Interior. Headlines like these show how controversial political discourse on Muslim integration is in Germany.
But these do not represent the whole reality of Muslim integration in the country. There are many examples of initiatives on both local and regional levels that are successfully addressing integration in Germany – especially when it comes to young people.
One of these initiatives is “Berlin needs you!,” a campaign borne out of the need to support immigrant youth, including 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants, in Berlin. The majority of participants come from Muslim backgrounds, and the programme helps them navigate the German vocational training system and find careers in the public sector. When the programme began in 2006, only 8 percent of those who had completed vocational training in public service and state-run companies came from immigrant backgrounds. The number climbed to 19 percent in 2010 and the programme aims to reach 25 percent soon.
A vocational education involving a 3-year apprenticeship, with half of the time spent in vocational school and the other half spent training on the job, is mandatory for anyone in Germany who wants to work as a skilled labourer and receive a regular salary without relying on government benefits.
Studies have shown that immigrant youth have difficulty climbing this educational ladder. They often lack support from their parents, many of whom work as unskilled labourers or are unemployed; additionally, German high schools usually only provide information on different occupations through classroom lectures.
“Berlin needs you!” began with an information campaign addressing students, teachers and parents to let them know about the opportunity to participate in vocational training in the public sector. Berlin’s public service sector – a significantly large employer – set a goal to increase the number of young people from immigrant backgrounds amongst its employees.
In 2009 the campaign began to cooperate directly with state-owned companies and developed a comprehensive approach to introduce students from grades 7 to 10 (11-16-year-olds) to different professions. Thirty-two schools and 46 companies have joined the project and cooperate regularly.
Students start with a one-day excursion to a company to get first-hand insight into working life and in the following year do a week-long internship in industrial or technical professions. The third year involves a three-week internship in security, health or administration. Finally, students receive training to complete job applications when they are in their final year of high school.
The programme wants to ensure that immigrant students get a comprehensive picture of different possibilities for their professional future. Programme manager Klaus Kohlmeyer says that they hope students can say “no, this is definitely not what I want to be” – and be able to say “yes” to the particular career they really want.
Meriran, a participant who is training as a clerk in public administration, says “working in the public service means having more opportunities in the future, and Berlin as a multicultural city needs young people from different cultures to represent [its] diversity.”
Currently the project offers students insight into 100 different professions in more than 12 vocational fields.
The idea of “Berlin needs you!” is spreading and a similar initiative is planned in Stuttgart. Yet, in Berlin there is still more work ahead. “People want successful integration, because it increases the quality of life in the city”, Kohlmeyer says. The programme hopes that through its work to create a more diverse public sector, it can help change attitudes in the wider community about integration.
“Berlin needs you!” contributes to a more integrated society by enabling each person, no matter his or her background, to realise their potential and succeed in professional life. It also contributes to the overall success of Germany’s economy, which relies heavily on a specialised and well-educated workforce – and thus to the country as a whole.
Julia Hoffmann is a Berlin-based consultant specialising in labour conditions and gender equality.