Integration in the labour market
Responses from employers and employees

A good command of language facilitates workplace integration.
A good command of language facilitates workplace integration. | Photo: © fotolia / industrieblick

What level of language proficiency do foreign workers really need? What expectations do they have, and what expectations do the companies at which they work have, when it comes to their career opportunities? A survey in Germany, Italy and Portugal offers some interesting insights into the needs and attitudes of migrant workers.

The European Integration Fund financed the transnational project Formazione, Lavoro e Integrazione.The project involved four European providers of language courses and examinations – the language centre at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia, the Cambridge English Language Assessment, the Goethe-Institut and the language centre at the Universidade de Lisboa – surveying foreign workers and their companies about labour market integration. The objective of the survey was to identify measures that could facilitate workplace integration. The results show that the challenges relating to the integration of migrants into the labour market are similar in the three European countries in question. The survey confirms that it is of fundamental importance for migrants to have a command of the local language and to be willing to undertake vocational training and continuing education if they are to find a job, expand skills that are relevant to their chosen profession and integrate into the labour market.
For the purposes of the quantitative and qualitative study, one questionnaire was used for employers and another for employees. The employees surveyed were migrants from countries outside the European Union. Most of them came from Turkey, Russia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Kosovo. Companies from the construction sector, industry, the hospitality trade and the service sector took part in the survey. Thanks to their support, a total of 319 questionnaires were analysed in Germany, Italy and Portugal. 117 employees and seven employers took part in the survey in Germany. Following an empirical analysis in focus groups, the results were jointly evaluated by the four institutions in cooperation with representatives of Germany’s Federal Employment Agency and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). 
  117 employees were surveyed in Germany. 117 employees were surveyed in Germany. | Photo: © Goethe-Institut

How important is a knowledge of German?

A command of the local language is the most important prerequisite for obtaining a job. In this context, those surveyed stated that a knowledge of the language used in everyday working life is particularly important. By far the most important advice that the surveyed employees had for other job seekers was to “learn the local language”, followed by “respect the laws” and “avoid becoming isolated”.

All the same, the two groups surveyed showed some discrepancy between their own perception and the other group’s perception of their language skills. The majority of employees claimed that their language skills in all four core abilities were “good” or even “very good”. By contrast, 72 percent of the employers surveyed described the language skills of the employees as merely “adequate”. This may be attributed on the one hand to excessively high demands on the part of the employers, or on the other to wishful thinking on the part of the employees. It may be that the latter are underestimating the negative impact of a poor command of the local language.
Core abilities – results of the survey of employees Core abilities – results of the survey of employees | © Goethe-Institut According to Frank-Jürgen Weise, head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, migrants need above all to be able to speak and read. By contrast, those employees surveyed attribute considerable importance not only to verbal interaction with their colleagues and superiors but also to understanding the spoken word. They believe reading – apart from the ability to understand instructions and warning signs – and writing to be less relevant. As far as vocabulary is concerned, a high proportion of those surveyed see job-related technical vocabulary as being particularly important.

How do employers assess an employee’s language proficiency level?

Those employers surveyed said that the job interview was the most important way of assessing the language proficiency of applicants. When recruiting non-native-speaking staff, they hardly ever rely on certificates with which they are not sufficiently familiar. Instead, they assess the applicants’ language abilities during the course of a face-to-face interview.
  Assessing German proficiency – results of the employee questionnaire Assessing German proficiency – results of the employee questionnaire | © Goethe-Institut Providers of language certificates of international renown may find this attitude hard to understand, yet it is difficult to influence. Language institutions should therefore make more information material about language levels available specifically for companies. They need brief guidelines that focus on relevant aspects of language knowledge.

Where and when can foreign employees improve their language proficiency?

Once migrants have exhausted any state-funded support in the form of integration courses, courses offered by companies come into play. Two thirds of those employers surveyed in Germany stated that they offer continuing education courses. However, in some cases they have unrealistic expectations about how quickly their employees can improve their language skills. The survey reveals that it is the location and time of such courses that is the key factor. Respondents said that they are only happy to take regular advantage of the courses if they are run during work time. The reasons why they choose not to take part in them differ:
Continuing education at the workplace – results of the employee questionnaire Continuing education at the workplace – results of the employee questionnaire | © Goethe-Institut

Recommendations for companies

The data obtained from the survey make it clear that it is up to companies to offer their foreign employees opportunities to further their language skills. Ideally, these should be courses that are funded by the company and tailored to the language proficiency levels and needs of their employees. The courses should take place during work time, and preferably at the workplace.
In addition, the communication requirements from the perspective of both employers and employees should be identified before the course begins. Language training programmes should be based on the situations and activities with which learners are confronted in their everyday work. Courses that link language teaching to content that is relevant to career advancement or to topics such as workplace safety are the best way forward.