Fostering the long-term employment of refugees: the Danish perspective. Interview with QVARTZ.

All around Europe, companies, NGOs and public authorities are increasingly motivated about encouraging the employment of refugees and asylum seekers, pushing for a move away from a public discourse limited to emergency and adopting a long-term strategy. The employment of refugees provides some potential advantages, from facilitating their integration into the host societies to acquiring new and diverse talents, beneficial for the whole economy.

Nevertheless, many challenges are still present. Bureaucratic complexities, differences in background, and the difficulty to assess skills challenge even the most willing companies to create long-term, sustainable employment opportunities.

With this in mind, QVARTZ, a management consulting company with offices in Copenhagen, Hamburg, New York, Oslo and Stockholm, has recently published some guidelines to help companies move “from competence match to long-lasting employment”. QVARTZ’s research is based on first-hand experiences: the consultancy hired two refugees as interns in 2016, drawing part of its final recommendations from that practical experience. Their work is based on the Danish job market, however, their proposals, presented in a 7-steps “New Game Plan, contain valuable information for all companies and authorities wanting to follow the same path.

For this reason, The New European talked to Christian Engkrog Andersen, Management Consultant at QVARTZ and one of the people responsible for the study, in order to know more about it and discuss their findings.

How is the situation of refugees’ integration into the Danish job market at the moment, especially from the perspective of business?

Christian Engkrog Andersen, Management Consultant at QVARTZ. Source: QVARTZ
Christian Engkrog Andersen, Management Consultant at QVARTZ. Source: QVARTZ

From a labor market perspective, there has lately been some progress – with more and more are entering the labor market. There are numerous examples of companies wanting to help asylum seekers and refugees integrate into the Danish workforce. The number of refugees in employment has almost doubled since 2016. The Danish think tank Monday Morning has identified 44 examples of grassroot employment-related initiatives as part of their mapping of successful Danish integration efforts.

The number of companies in the business network Together for Integration (Sammen om integration) is growing, now counting around 200 companies of various sizes across industries. Meanwhile, companies are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to hire refugees. For example, as of April 2017, 466 “IGU”-procedures (a combination of business education, language training and practical experience) have been registered with the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI).

All of this signals a clear improvement in terms of integrating refugees into the Danish workforce. However, despite this mutual willingness, most employment opportunities for refugees turn out to be only temporary.

How did QVARTZ decide to come up with the decision to work on the issue?

An imperative challenge of the influx of refugees, in our mind, is how to secure leveraging the pool of talent – a potential significantly larger than what is being leveraged today – and an opportunity to improve and increase the Danish workforce, which is needed. We believe that getting refugees into employment is the only sound business case from a long-term perspective: it means having them contribute to growth and prosperity, improving their quality of life while at the same time reducing public expenses.

For this reason, we understood that it was not enough just to study the best way forward – which we did first looking into how to go from a refugee influx to competency match and then from competency match to long term employment: but also decided to get involved and establish an employment program ourselves, in order to gain first hand experiences.

How did the program practically work?

The process of hiring interns was surprisingly simple. We had met some interesting candidates through our collaboration with a local NGO, Trampoline House and Red Cross who operate some of the Danish refugee camps, and simply invited the candidates to our office for a job interview. Beforehand, we had made an initial assessment based on the candidates’ CVs and educational backgrounds. In the end, we hired two interns in our marketing and finance departments. The help from the asylum centre and job centre was a critical component, and we experienced good guidance and advice followed by an open and honest dialogue.

From day one, as with every other new member of the QVARTZ civilisation, our interns were appointed a compañero, a go-to person who provides support to new employees. Having a mentor was a large benefit for the interns.

What have you learnt from the experience?

With time, it became clear that we might just have moved too fast in the beginning. We had not been sufficiently clear on our own expectations about the internship and the required capabilities and skills from them. Some tasks proved to be too simple for our two interns, while others were too complex. Furthermore, it proved difficult to assess the level, quality and content of a foreign education or job experience, meaning that we had to invest more in on-the-job and formal training than we had expected.

In terms of expectations, focus should not only be on education and skills. Motivation and values are equally, if not more, important. It requires dedication to understand different cultures. From both sides, successful integration requires frequent interactions. Inviting the new colleagues to social gatherings, being prepared for open dialogues and giving them concrete opportunities to share their reflections are good starting points.

In this regard, language has been a very delicate issue, and is something to be aware of in the matching process: while English is the official language in QVARTZ, some understanding of Danish turned out to be necessary for one of our interns to solve certain specialised tasks. Providing on-the-job language classes to the refugees in both Danish and English was a great help.

While we were not successful in creating long-lasting employment for our two interns at QVARTZ, everyone involved learned a lot from the process, and we would not hesitate to do it again. The next time, we will spend more time on initial expectation management and be very clear on our own needs.

The 7-steps "New Game-Plan", as presented by QVARTZ' report.
The 7-steps “New Game-Plan”, as presented by QVARTZ’ report.

What are the biggest challenges for companies who want to hire refugees?

Long-lasting relationships between companies and refugees requires an open dialogue about expectations. Some aspects of Danish culture may seem paradoxical to newcomers. Danes prefer honesty, but are fairly reserved. For companies, this balance is difficult to communicate to new employees who come from a foreign culture. However, it is an essential piece of the puzzle for companies who want to understand the needs of new employees. When asked about the largest obstacles to the successful employment of refugees, the companies we have spoken to have highlighted cultural barriers and mixed levels of motivation. These obstacles all emphasise the importance of an open dialogue and alignment on roles and responsibilities. Hence, speaking up is vital to nourish mutual understanding.

Infographic taken from QVARTZ' report
Infographic taken from QVARTZ’ report

The refugees we have spoken to express a strong desire to work, both to gain self-sufficiency and to contribute to their new country. Several expressed a need to assert that they do not wish to be hired out of pity, but that instead they hope to be met with an understanding of the difficulties they may experience when adjusting to a new work place. Those who were able to establish a network through mentoring programmes or civil society described a greater sense of empowerment.

To make it work, both the companies and the refugees need to go an extra mile. Creating a level playing field for the refugees will need to be driven by the companies, with the significant potential upside of gaining new competences, a more diverse culture and growth.

Do you think there is a lack of training in business owners to meet these challenges?

It is very natural that there is a lack of experience when what we have experienced is a quite incomparable to any other situation. However, there are good examples of companies who have leveraged their experience working with other groups for whom it has been challenging to enter the labour market. Also, a range of good experiences aiding companies to better prepare and succeed has already been gathered.

I believe that sharing knowledge and showcasing best practices is vital. It is especially necessary to bring forward good advice on how to overcome and prepare for the real challenges, but also to destroy false rumours about big challenges that are actually small to boost motivation.

Complex challenges require complex solutions. For this reason, the establishment of a whole ecosystem, putting together public, private sectors and NGOs is vital. Is there such an ecosystem in Denmark?

I believe there is, and it has seen a revival lately. Many of the improvement levers that we and others have identified over the last years are being addressed in newer legislation, and a large range of companies have taken on their part of the responsibility in trying to integrate refugees into the labour market. The question is – what can we do to keep momentum? Our response was to look closer into how to go from a competence match to long lasting employment.

How much of the Danish experience can be transferred to other countries in the EU?

Improving integration and asylum administration are among Europe’s main struggles. Our perspective has been quite focused on labour market integration. However, this is only part of the solution, even if it is highly interdependent with other areas: educational integration, housing and health integration as well as socio-cultural and language integration. I believe other EU countries definitely can find inspiration among the levers, we have identified in how to secure a competency match in the Danish system, despite legislative differences: more practically, one could consider the benefits of a Pan-European competence platform.


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