Unemployment in parts of eastern regions remains high. A small recruitment company is successfully putting people back in jobs, despite its founder's own fair share of hard knocks.
Down but not out: Germans in the East are finding jobs
Three million people are currently out of a job in Germany, with a chunk of them in the eastern half of the country. That not only weighs on the individual; it's also a financial burden for the whole of society, as the government needs to pay more in benefits but receives less in taxes as fewer people work.
But is the German government doing enough to help people return to the workforce? Definitely not, says Lars Naundorf, who runs a small but successful private recruitment company in eastern Germany.
If at first you don't succeed, get up and try again - that's Lars Naundorf's motto. The 34-year-old manager likes to talk but he can listen. And that's important in his job.
A job: More than paying the bills
Naundorf is driven by work - that is, finding work for others. He knows what it's like to be unemployed, and that a job is about more than just paying the bills. He used to work for a big electronics store, but when the company went bust in 2001, he was without a job.
Finding a new position was never going to going to be easy. At the time, the unemployment rate in Naundorf's home city, Gera, in the eastern state of Thuringia, was about 20 percent.
Job seekers have encountered red tape with state employment agencies
Perhaps that's why Naundorf decided to start up his own recruitment agency in 2002 - even though friends and family thought he was mad.
"Well, they were stunned," Naundorf recalls. "They told me that I was digging my own grave and that there is no work here."
But he proved them wrong. In his first year, Naundorf managed to find a new job for 12 people. The following year, that number rose to 100. To date, he's found jobs for 1,500 people and 80 percent of them have been permanent posts. He even found jobs for people who had almost given up - like the 63-year-old carpenter who was constantly told he was too old, or a woman who had last worked when Germany was still divided by the Iron Curtain ...
"Her last payslip was in East German marks," Naundorf says. "Just before the wall came down, she became pregnant and when she tried to go back to work a few years later, the company she worked for was gone. She'd been struggling ever since."
Naundorf believes he could find plenty more jobs for people if only the local authorities would allow him. His hands, he says, are tied by red tape.
All about "great statistics"
Naundorf is only permitted to make enquiries for people who have been unemployed for more than two months. And if those people happen to be registered for any kind of training course at the local job center, they are not officially unemployed and, therefore, are out of bounds for Naundorf. "I really get the impression the Federal Labor Agency doesn't really want to get people back into work, they just want great statistics," he says.
But what is it that makes Naundorf so different? Why does he succeed where scores of civil servants at state employment agencies fail? "When an employer registers a vacancy, I don't fax him some form to fill in," he says. "I make sure I get to the company within three hours to talk to the client and get a feel for the place, so I can find the right person for the job."
For many, a job is more than just paying bills
Most companies in Gera have less than 10 staff. That means they don't have a personnel department. Their bosses manage everything from orders to invoices as well as hiring. They're more than happy to delegate recruiting to Naundorf whom they see as a sort of external human resources manager.
Unlike the state employment agency, which sends dozens of applicants for every vacant position, he carefully chooses two or three candidates for the company to interview. And he listens to the jobseekers' problems. "When people tell me, I'm 53 and I have back problems or my knees are not what they once were, I just interrupt them and say: I don't want to know what you can't do – I want to know what you would do if you could pick and choose," he says. "Most people are stunned. They always say that no one has ever asked them that before."
People who are unable to find work through the state employment agency after two months of searching are automatically given a voucher for a private recruitment agency like the one operated by Naundorf, who receives 2,000 euros ($2,700) for each successful job placement.
In for the long haul
Payment is made in two parts. The first thousand euros is paid six weeks after the applicant starts work. The remaining thousand is only transferred if the person is still in the same job six months later. "It's a good arrangement, because it forces me to think long-term and not just place people random," Naundorf says.
The ambitious recruiter says he's in it for the long haul. Despite his get-up-and-go attitude, he knows it's tough out there. His agency used to have seven staff members, now only three remain. His plan to set up a franchise based on his business model failed, and a television series about his work was canned after just one episode. But Naundorf takes it all in his stride because he knows that even when he falls, he's the kind of person who, at the end of the day, gets back up again.
Author: Monika Dittrich (jrb)
Editor: Nina Haase