Wolfsburg, Germany

Jobs, SMEs and Refugees at Volkswagen


April 30, 2018

A multisector collaboration led by Volkswagen connects refugees to employment through local SMEs

In German, Volkswagen stands for “car of the people”. In the city of Wolfsburg, where the company has its headquarters, this couldn’t be more true: Volkswagen has become the centre of the city’s economic life. Most companies and businesses, from family-owned automotive component suppliers to the farms producing meat for the “Volkswagen currywurst,” are in some way connected to Volkswagen.

So, when these small and medium size companies (SMEs) were faced with daunting skills gaps and the city’s refugee population was struggling to find employment, Volkswagen was motivated to step-in.

Multi-sector partnerships

In 2016, the company started a collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and the local office of the Federal Employment Agency, which provides job training and placements in communities across Germany, to connect unemployed refugees with businesses in Wolfsburg who were searching for new employees and offering apprenticeship positions.

The core of Volkswagen’s refugee assistance programs focus on helping train refugees in language proficiency and skills so they can compete in the German job market. The goal for all of Volkswagen’s refugee programs is to prepare refugees to enter the workforce through traditional pathways, rather than through specialized programs. While there was initial excitement among local companies to hire refugees immediately, most had to take a step back and strategize how to adapt their current national training programs to be inclusive of refugees.

From the beginning, it was clear that Federal language classes were not enough – speaking in class for 2 to 3 hours, then returning home to a non-German speaking environment meant that most of what refugees were learning in class was quickly forgotten. In addition, the sudden influx of refugees in 2015 overwhelmed the system, and the government struggled to respond quickly. So Volkswagen took a leading role. The started by supporting the government programs where they needed help most: “We financed language classes because there were not enough state teachers and language proficiency is one of the main pre-requisite requirements for those applying to work or study in a German university. Waiting around for over six months with nothing to do, especially after coming from traumatic backgrounds, is especially difficult for the refugees, so we thought we could intervene there first,” explained Ms. Krautz, a member of the Corporate Social Responsibility team at Volkswagen.  Importantly, Volkswagen recognized the value of integrating language with work training, so the company supported the development of language classes and pre-qualification workshops to help prospective refugee employees “catch-up” with locals. Focused especially on current students and young adults, the targeted programs helped refugees prepare for the traineeship programs that are mandatory to complete to enter certain professions in Germany. To date, over 2,600 refugees have direct classes from Volkswagen.

Ms. Krautz explained that small and medium enterprises (SMEs), both in Volkswagen’s value chain and externally, have particular difficulty finding employees and would benefit from a refugee hiring pool, as opposed to larger companies which are able to attract internationally trained workers to Germany. “Finding good people is good for our business, so we looked for  where those gaps were, where people were most needed, and started to train them to access jobs, even outside of the ‘Wolfswagen’ Group,” stated Ms. Krautz.  Soon they were connecting refugees to employment in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in their supply chains by empowering them with the skill sets needed, as well as providing the financial assistance to complete the qualifications necessary for the job, which typically, smaller companies cannot afford to finance alone.

Considering the impact of Volkswagen on the city of Wolfsburg, and how closely its supply chain is  connected to the economic well-being of the city, addressing SME skill gaps locally may help Volkswagen close the labour gaps in its supply chain in the long-term.  While the core of the company’s efforts lay in filling local employment gaps in Wolfsburg, the success of these initiatives is travelling throughout its entire supply chain.

Important City Stakeholder

Beyond assisting refugees with direct employment services, Volkswagen recognized the important role it could play at the city level, assisting with other aspects of refugee settlement. This initial engagement took shape in a program called Refugee Aid, which offered Volkswagen employees opportunities to volunteer to address specific refugee needs in the community, with the added benefit of creating an employee engagement program that strengthened the companies’ ties to the community. The most pressing concern was managing the administration of the large influx of refugees to local housing and assistance centres. Through its employee participation programs, Volkswagen was able to provide software engineers to help develop and implement IT systems to support more effective registration and tracking of refugees. With this information, Volkswagen volunteers were able to develop programs to address the populations concerns, such as the translation of CVs into the German labour market context and mentoring refugee youth interested in attending German universities.

In addition to leveraging its own employee base, Volkswagen found other ways to utilize its resources to support refugees. In the summer of 2016, the refugee housing facility located close to company headquarters had received over 1,000 refugees but did not yet have a functional kitchen. So, Volkswagen responded by providing cooked meals for over 1,000 people during the 4 days the kitchen was under construction.  Volkswagen reached into its own automobile inventory, lending out company cars out to help refugees traveling to doctor’s appointments, government appointments or transporting materials and supplies. Through partnering directly with NGOs, and understanding the most immediate needs, Volkswagen could respond quickly and use resources the company had readily available.

Youth, an investment in the future

Through its commitment to supporting refugees in the community, Volkswagen recognized the need to invest specifically in refugee youth.   Germany’s rigid education system, divided into 3 “levels” based on student performance, can negatively affects migrant and refugee children who have experienced interruptions in their schooling, or different curriculum. The level at which the student can progress determines whether they can apply for university degrees, so it is especially important for newcomers to be coached throughout the process. The union at Volkswagen has a foundation that initiated a 2.5-million euro program in 2015 in Wolfsburg for school-age refugee children that provides additional teachers to public schools sometimes overwhelmed by the sudden influx of school-age children in their classrooms. The fund also provided social workers to monitor refugee children’s experiences of trauma and dislocation and assist them throughout the healing process.

Advice to other companies

By directly providing the training and connections to SMEs in their supply chains, large companies can support the Volkswagen model of refugee assistance without direct involvement. This model is particularly replicable in companies operating in multiple countries where they control their supply chains, and in this way demonstrate a socially responsible footprint.

Source: Reprinted from Hire Immigrants website

Making it Work for You:

  • Capitalize on your core functions. Identify your company’s competitive edge, and meet with the human resources, research and development, and corporate social responsibility departments (if applicable); consider how the different departments can build a comprehensive refugee assistance program, and how to best foster employee engagement.
  • Fill employment gaps. If your company is not in a position to hire directly, review your supply chain, and identify if there are any gaps in their employment needs. If you don’t have specific gaps in your supply chains, partner with local SMEs, chambers of commerce and entrepreneur organizations to see whether they have employment needs, or could use support. Try to adapt your competitive edge and company skillsets to the training needs of these organizations when building your refugee program.
  • Training youth. Be open to assisting the young, especially if you’re a larger company. While they will most likely not be able to work for your company immediately, providing additional assistance for refugee children in school districts where your company operates can help identify candidates in the long run and build a sustainable and qualified workforce for your supply chain over generations. Positive spillover effects include building lifelong loyalty to your firm, as they will be familiar with your brand, and become customers in the future.