All welcome: people walk past a mural outside the Foreigners Agency in Berlin, which registers and issues residency permits to immigrants © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Private, family-run businesses often claim a superior structure to publicly listed companies when it comes to investing for the long-term. As Germany’s migrant crisis continues, some are showing they are better at investing in social capital, too.

Friedhelm Loh Group (FLG), a manufacturing and services group with 11,500 employees, says it was able to initiate a programme for refugees earlier than most simply because Friedhelm Loh, the billionaire owner of the company, considered it a duty.

“It’s an advantage to be privately owned: you just decide that it’s good for society and just do it,” says Regina Wiechens-Schwake, director of corporate communications. “It’s different for a big company that is probably on the stock exchange. The decision processes are different. [Mr Loh] can say, ‘It’s my company, my money, I can do what I want.’ ”

In July, many were embarrassed when the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper produced a survey showing that Germany’s top public companies — the 30 listed on the Dax index of blue-chip companies — had hired just 54 refugees with fixed, long-term contracts. Virtually all of them were at Deutsche Post.

A wider and more recent study from the consultancy Roland Berger of 132 companies of all sizes, but including some of Germany’s biggest employers, shows progress. Almost 90 per cent employed refugees in some capacity.

But details of the report are less inspiring: only 530 refugees had been offered full-time jobs in those companies — a figure that seems tiny when you consider that nearly a million migrants entered Europe in 2015 alone.

There were about 4,000 internships or occupational training programmes aimed at migrants at these companies, and nearly 600 more refugees were undertaking a traditional paid apprenticeship typically lasting between two and three years.

Wolfgang Schuster, a member of the Lahn-Dill regional council in Hesse, has said programmes aimed at teaching migrants work skills are not only a moral good, but something Germany needs: “The region [Lahn-Dill] is at present home to 90,000 people in paid employment. By 2030, the number of residents of working age will have dropped by 30,000. As a result, we need controlled immigration; otherwise, our economy is at risk.”

FLG launched its pilot programme in early 2015 with the regional government of Lahn-Dill, to support integrating and educating migrants. It began with 20 refugees selected for a five-day assessment to understand their qualifications and background. Eight were chosen for a three-month internship, which included learning how to operate machinery and taking German lessons to acquire specialised jargon for the metal industry.

Two of the eight have since started a two-year apprenticeship programme to become machine and plant operators.

Klaus Fuest, a consultant at Roland Berger, says small- and medium-sized companies can be better suited to integrating migrants because they often have senior colleagues who are in a position to work directly with the migrants and with local administration and housing officials.

“While big companies have the means and the organisational resources or skill sets to take in and train larger numbers of refugees, smaller companies might be better in organising the ‘full package’,” he says.

That proved to be the case at Epos, a 25-employee company near the southern city of Karlsruhe, which installs home automation and security systems. Epos set up a programme in 2013 to give migrants training and the possibility of a job. Nicole Zor, manager of finance and human resources, says she marched down to the local jobs office and said: “OK, I have a refugee and I want to offer him a training position. What can I do? How does it work? Are there possibilities to support him financially?”

The one-on-one interaction helped her figure out how to navigate the bureaucracy — or “agency jungle” as she puts it — often cited as a key challenge alongside language and qualifications.

Epos started by establishing a two- to six-week training programme, whose main goal was find out if the applicants fitted within the company. Thirty migrants have gone through the programme, Ms Zor says. Three males aged 20 to 24, hailing from Somalia, Eritrea, and Syria, have become permanent staff, while another young man from Afghanistan is currently in a training programme for electrical engineering.

Ms Zor says much more needs to be done but the German government has set up a good framework for helping refugees. She says larger, better-resourced companies need to become more involved to follow the successful examples set by others.

“We are often critical of the big companies,” she says. “If possible we would take many more people . . . [but] of course we cannot take a new person every week. This depends on our size and what we need for manpower.”

Mr Fuest says most companies want to be involved, but need to work out how. With top-down pressure from the government, and migrants finishing language and other training programmes, he is optimistic the programmes can work.

“There is a gap between the intention and the actual doing,” he says. “[But] this gap is closing.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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