Austrian employers woo refugees amid labour shortage
Austria's right-wing government might defend tough anti-immigration policies but employers were out to attract refugees at a special jobs fair last week as the country faced pressing labour shortages.
"Would you like to work in security? Please leave your CV with us" was a typical pitch.
The event in Vienna attracted bosses from virtually all of Austria's leading employers, from the national railway OeBB to construction giant Porr, the postal service and Telekom Austria.
Doughnuts, drinks and gadgets were also offered to 1,200 refugees selected by Austria's public employment service AMS. They were mainly Syrians and Afghans who had arrived in Austria during the 2015 migrant crisis.
The government-sponsored event aimed to help Austrian firms deal with a chronic labour shortage. In a country of 8.7 million people there are now around 160,000 job vacancies, with unemployment expected to fall to 4.6 percent this year from 4.9 percent in 2018.
Economic growth was steady at 2.7 percent in 2018, but "the biggest brake on growth at the moment is lack of labour", the head of Austria's Chamber of Commerce (WKOe) Karlheinz Kopf, told AFP.
"There is an urgent need for more labour in almost every sector, from manufacturing to tourism," he explained.
That was borne out by the number of jobs on offer at the fair, including 500 at OeBB, 400 at the Hofer supermarket chain, 350 at German retail co-operative Rewe and 200 at facilities management company Simacek.
According to official figures, 30,000 refugees are unemployed, a third of whom are less than 25 years old.
"These are people who can be trained and who have enormous potential," Kopf argued.
While many of the jobs on offer were fairly low-paid, the range of opportunities was wider than it might appear said Gerhard Zummer, head of training at the Austrian subsidiary of German engineering giant Siemens.
His company had hundreds of posts vacant, spanning fields "from electrical engineering to cloud technology to the internet of things.
"The important thing for us is to attract good candidates. Whether they're refugees or not isn't important, we look at their skills and then we can train them internally," Zummer said.
But for those who came to Austria with advanced skills, it can be hard to find work matching their qualifications.
"I was a maths teacher in my country," recalls Sherihan, originally from Hassake, northeastern Syria.
"But I can't get my degree recognised here so I'm looking for an administrative post," she explained in excellent German.
Some are able to put their qualifications to use meanwhile: AMS head Johannes Kopf said that around 50 Middle Eastern doctors had been hired by Austrian hospitals.
Lawand, 18, who arrived from Damascus three years ago, says he dreamt at first of a job on the railways or in an airport. But he hasn't ruled out training as a nursing assistant, another sector crying out for workers.
Call for a rethink
Beyond filling vacancies at big companies, the AMS' Kopf said the fair was also aimed at "making smaller businesses aware of the potential" that refugees have.
"Many businesses are somewhat apprehensive. It's true that in the first six months there is often a need for some adjustment," he acknowledged. "But after that period the returns are very, very positive. These are young people who are very motivated in their work."
All agreed that a good level of German was essential to success in the job market.
Austria's conservative government has nonetheless scrapped funds for language classes for migrants, and asylum seekers are barred from vocational training until they have obtained refugee status.
"We can only welcome the fact that the government is now trying to help refugees enter the world of work," the Federal Chamber of Labour (AK) noted dryly in a statement commenting on the fair.
But the AK added that the fair should be "accompanied by a rethink of the scrapping of subsidies for German classes and other training".
By AFP's Philippe Schwab