Diversity Europe

Harnessing the Economic Power of Cultural Diversity in the European Union

Europe is grappling with growing cultural diversity due to millions of refugees flooding the European Union's countries. Employers can play a vital role in helping the refugees become contributors to economic success.
By Anna Gonsalves

The European Union is experiencing a multicultural revolution due the flood of refugees that continues to this day. The various governments making the decision to allow millions of refugees to enter, leading to a natural increase in migrants crossing EU borders, are dealing with a public backlash in many instances.

Integrating people from different cultures is a challenging process, especially when the cultures are significantly different from the culture of their new home countries. Government policies and programs focused on integrating new arrivals are a critical element of the process, but employers have the real power to harness cultural diversity in the workforce as a means for growing the economy.

Learning from History
The European Union was founded in 1993, but long before that many of the member countries have periodically experienced an influx of people from different countries for different reasons.

Outside of war causing massive migrations of people running from discrimination and destruction, the primary reason people of different cultures were allowed into the country was economic. Germany is a good example. During the 1960s, Germany allowed guest workers from Turkey to join the workforce as cheap labor in a post-war booming economy. France allowed millions of mostly-Muslim foreign workers in during the same time period for the same reason – cheap labor. This story is repeated in many countries.

Once the economies were modernized and back on track, the immigrant workers allowed in for economic reasons were no longer needed. Many of the workers stayed, producing second and third generations. In Germany alone, more than 3 million Turks are German residents.

Today, millions of the immigrant workers in various countries live in poverty and outside the mainstream culture. As the EU continues to accept refugees, it is imperative they be integrated into the economy rather than becoming an economic burden. Employers can play a critical role in the process of integration by embracing multiculturalism in the workforce as a source of innovation and new perspectives.

New Economic Force
Integrating refugees into the EU workforce will require governments and employers working together to establish the foundation for immigrant success. It is not a simple matter of agreeing to hire immigrants. One of the challenges Europe's most recent immigrants face is the difference between job training and licensing requirements in a country like Syria versus those in EU member states.

Mouhanad Salha's story is a good example as described in "The Economist." He was studying IT in Syria in 2012 when he fled to Lebanon. In Lebanon, he became an apprentice electrician, but he had to flee once again in 2014. He ended up in the Netherlands and has worked a total of one week since arriving in Europe.

He wants to work as an electrician, but here is the challenge he and others like him face: Meeting complex government requirements for certification and language skills. Immigrants/refugees who are employed also have a high risk of losing government-paid benefits. Many refugees are low-skilled workers, but many are also ready and willing to undergo training in order to pursue good paying jobs like working as an electrician for a contractor. As "The Economist" points out, the United States has been successful at creating low-wage jobs, and these entry jobs can lead to higher paying work through training over time.

Salha has enrolled in a training program that is sponsored by the electrical-grid operator Alliander. Upon program completion, he is guaranteed a job. This model of integration would be more productive if he had been able to get this type of opportunity much sooner. Instead, he was initially trapped by government policies that take generous benefits away when landing a job. If it is a low-paying job, the incentive to work disappears.

Immigrants and refugees that remain outside the economic mainstream are never fully integrated into society.

Working as Partners to Fill Workforce Skills Gaps
The refugee crisis does not have to become an economic crisis and can be turned into an economic opportunity. Helping people become economic contributors as early as possible benefits everyone. There are many ways employers can make this happen, while working with government programs designed to integrate the newcomers into society.

One approach is to form a partnership in which the government assesses a refugee's skills, followed by the government and the employer providing joint training with promise of a job. In that way, the person is trained and employed based on his or her skill set. An IT person like Salha would be underutilized as a janitor when minimal training could strengthen and upgrade his skills. BMW partnered with the Federal Employment Agency to provide orientation employment for highly qualified refugees.

Joint private sector-government efforts can also address workforce issues like an aging population. Most refugees are young. Getting them into the workforce now will enable them to begin the career-building process and enable knowledge transfer from older to younger workers. One suggestion is to ensure people with skills in areas like healthcare, business, engineering, technology and construction can quickly become economic contributors, while low-skilled workers can supply critical needs like taking care of the elderly population.

It is challenging to convince many people in the European nations to change their perspectives and consider the refugees to be a source of economic growth rather than a burden on society. Employers can be role models by supporting the governments’ efforts by providing training programs and employment opportunities. For example, Deutsche Telekon created a dedicated internal task force that offers intern positions to refugees.

Intersectionality applies to the European refugees. Anyone who regularly watches the news sees people in war-torn countries who are destitute, forming opinions based on a few images. Many have dark skin or are black. Women wearing headscarves and burqas appear submissive and even odd to non-Muslims in North America and the EU. Terrorism has led to bias against large groups of people.

Is bias against refugees due to gender, skin color, a perception there is a lack of skills, the cost to taxpayers, and/or religion? It is difficult to ferret out the truth, but employers have a major part to play in driving an inclusive and economically growing EU.