Few issues move Germany and Austria more right now than the refugee crisis. The arrival of over one million people in 2015 fleeing from war, poverty and violence has brought huge challenges for our societies – logistically, financially, economically and socially.
One of the most crucial questions regarding integration of the new arrivals is: how do you find jobs for so many people? It was exactly this question which inspired Dominik Beron (24, right) and two colleagues to found the employment agency RefugeesWork.at in 2015. I met him to find out more about the project and his life as a young entrepreneur.
Interview: Katharine Eyre
RiskPlayWin: Can you explain the business model of RefugeesWork?
Dominik Beron: Companies and refugees can register on the website www.refugeeswork.at.
The use of the website is free of charge for refugees. We find jobs, internships and apprenticeships for people entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection. We find apprenticeships and volunteering jobs for asylum seekers.*
Companies pay annual fees to use the website. Small companies with 1-15 employees can choose how much they would like to pay. The fees for larger companies increase with the size of the company. Companies with 16-50 employees pay EUR 500 per year; companies with 5,000 employees pay EUR 5,000 per year.
Cities and local councils can also register – refugees can perform communal services for these bodies. However, our current focus remains the private sector.
*(Note: People entitled to asylum are recognised refugees whose asylum process has ended with a positive decision. People entitled to subsidiary protection are not recognised as refugees but require protection for other reasons, e.g. threat of torture in their home country. People entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection have unrestricted access to the Austrian labour market, on a par with Austrian or EU citizens. Asylum seekers are people who have made an application for asylum, but whose asylum process has not yet been completed; they have only limited access to the Austrian labour market.)
RPW: How does the field of activity of RefugeesWork differ from that of the AMS (Austrian Employment Office)?
DB: Our target group is different. First of all, we find work for asylum seekers: AMS cannot do this. We also provide detailed legal information for companies free of charge on our website. Furthermore, companies can advertise jobs on our website or look for employees directly.
When finding suitable jobs for refugees, we use a general algorithm to match employers with job seekers, which searches according to criteria such as asylum status, education, place of residence and language skills.
We offer downloads of all the forms of the state authorities (with explanatory notes), information on state subsidies and have also developed concepts for facilitating the integration of a job seeker into a company.
There are three of these concepts:
- Communication: teaching language skills. That ranges from banal, everyday matters, like how to correct someone if they make a grammatical mistake, to important tips on general communication.
- Specific expert knowledge and understanding.
- Cultural differences.
We also have a checklist for companies so that they know how to prepare for the new employee – what has to be done on the first day of work, the first week etc.
Finally, we set up an online-chat. We noticed that the refugees communicate a great deal via WhatsApp and Facebook. Since companies mainly use email, we have created a common communication channel and can send both parties important information, such a briefing for a job interview.
RPW: When did you have the idea for the employment agency?
DB: November 2015. An entrepreneur who was interested in employing refugees asked me for help, as he didn’t know how to approach the issue. Initially, we wanted to pass the idea on to an NGO. However, due to the existing burden on these organisations, they had no spare capacity to run such a project. So we started it ourselves. Originally, we just concentrated on asylum seekers – it was only afterwards that we extended it to cover people entitled to asylum and subsidiary protection.
RPW: How did you go about planning the project? How did you organise the necessary finances?
DB: Before we launched the project, we collected EUR 10,000 via crowdfunding, although this sum is really just a drop in the ocean! We used that money for the establishment and fixed costs. Otherwise, we are financed by the fees paid by the companies registered on the website.
RPW: A question on your education: you already have a law degree, are currently writing your doctorate and have already completed several internships at renowned commercial law firms in Vienna. Why did you choose this path, rather than take a well-paid job at a law firm?
DB: I wanted to do something different, I wanted to change something and have an impact. That explains the focus on the integration of refugees into the Austrian workforce; this is the biggest societal challenge we face today. Working as a lawyer is a great intellectual challenge and I find commercial matters really interesting. But you won’t make any big societal changes in such a job.
RPW: What objectives have you set yourselves for the first year of RefugeesWork?
DB: For 2016, we set ourselves the objective of finding jobs for 500 people and getting 400 companies registered on the website. In the first two weeks alone, 140 companies have registered! They’re very different – not just international corporates, but also companies with between 200-500 employees and also sole traders.
We’ll have to wait and see how it develops. But we certainly want to find jobs for 500 people this year. For a small team, that’s an ambitious goal.
RPW: How many refugees have already registered?
DB: As at 5th April, 1000 refugees had registered.
RPW: Is there a typical profile for the refugees that have registered so far (age, gender, nationality)?
DB: Most of them are men. With regard to age, I can’t really make any generalisations. Of course, most of them come from the Middle East (Syria or Iraq), but a small number of people from Asia and Africa have also registered.
RPW: Did you manage to find anyone a job yet?
DB: Not yet, since our activities as an agency haven’t really started yet. What we have done is to help with finding employees for companies outside of the platform by providing relevant information.
RPW: There has been a lot of different information in the media about the level of education of the refugees and how long it takes on average for them to find a job. What is your experience here?
DB: It’s still a bit early to tell. How long it takes for a refugee to find a job depends on many different factors, such as access to language courses, the attitudes of employers, whether German or English is spoken as standard at the employer etc. The young Iraqis and Syrians in particular speak very good English and will find it much easier to integrate into a workplace where English is the working language. Some will find work quickly – others will need more time; each case will be different and depend on the framework conditions.
RPW: How can you verify the qualifications of the refugees who register with you if they don’t have any certificates or references with them?
DB: It’s possible to upload certificates and documents onto our website. Apart from this, we put the refugees‘ CVs together differently than is otherwise customary in Austria. We don’t write which company someone has worked at and for how long, but focus on the content of the activities performed (i.e. what machine someone has operated, which software they have worked with). This is meant to facilitate their entry into the labour market.
RPW: You’re operating in a controversial area. That requires courage and a certain willingness to take risks. How do you cope with this pressure?
DB: There will always be criticism of some sort. Criticism from the left, criticism from the right. Refugees and their integration is obviously a difficult issue right now. I listen to the criticism and if good points are made, I consider them. I’m aware of the consequences of my actions.
I’m convinced that what we’re doing is not just important from a social point of view, but also economically. We need migration in order to maintain the social systems in Austria, as the population is aging. That’s why I don’t worry about it that much. There have been some critical comments and emails – which I think was just people’s fears dressed up as criticism – but it wasn’t anything bad.
RPW: What role does work play in the integration of refugees in Austria in your opinion?
DB: A huge role! First of all, work promotes social integration. If you work, you spend a lot of time with your colleagues. In this way, you come into contact with other Austrians and learn the language. On the other hand, work is incredibly important from an economic point of view. If you don’t have any work experience, it is difficult to get a job and you get economically marginalised. If Austria fails to take active measures to integrate these people, we will have a whole generation of long-term unemployed that cost a lot of money and don’t bring any tax income.
RPW: What are your plans for the further development of RefugeesWork? Where do you want to be in 3 years?
DB: Good question! We certainly want to build up the project across Austria. Besides that, we are looking for partners in other countries. We intentionally built the website in such a way that it would be easy to run it via the domains “refugeeswork.de” or “refugeeswork.nl”.
We would be delighted if people from other countries would contact us who want to set up similar projects, but don’t have the required know-how or infrastructure. In such cases, it would be much more efficient to use the same agency system on a cross-border basis.
RPW: Even if you have all these lofty goals – entrepreneurship always carries the risk of failure. What will you do if this project doesn’t work out?
DB: I don’t really think about it that much. If the project fails long term, then I’ve still helped a lot of people on the way and therefore changed something. If it failed, I’d think about what else I could set up. Or I’d complete my dissertation. As far as my future is concerned, I’m keeping my options open.
RPW: Do you definitely see your future in a social company?
DB: Definitely! It’s a lot of fun.
RiskPlayWin wishes Dominik and his team all the best with the development of RefugeesWork!