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Germans Shying Away from International Careers

The number of Germans working in international organizations is lower than one would expect. While Germany is one of the biggest donors to groups like the UN, its citizens prefer making their careers at home.

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The promise of international glamour hasn't convinced Germans to take up jobs abroad.

Claudia Lässing has a job that would be the envy of much of the world. The 31-year-old examinations officer at UN headquarters in New York has an office high in the UN tower with a magnificent view over Manhattan. She juggles the UN's personnel placements and fills slots with people that the international body's 191 member states send her way. Lässing has her eye on the UN's entire human resources landscape. What she doesn't see out there are many Germans.

"We could recruit a good 20 Germans," she said. "And we'd have to recruit another 40 before you could say that Germans are over represented here."

For a long time there were too few applications from Germans wanting to work at the UN. While Lässing can't say exactly why that is, she suspects it has something to do with the Germans' reputation for not being as mobile as others. While they love to travel, moving abroad for years at a time is another thing. A job with the UN can mean 30 years overseas, away from family and friends, which for many is too big a sacrifice despite the glamour of an international career.

Not in the mind-set

Lässing herself began her career path at the age of 25, when she accepted a job with UNESCO in Geneva. She knew beforehand she wanted a career that crossed borders, but she's an exception among German college grads.

"It's been my experience that people in Germany are pretty surprised that you can get a job at the UN. It's not very common for students to think it's possible to plan for an international career. We need to educate people," she said.

A new cooperative effort called the Berliner Initiative hopes to fill that information gap. The program has brought together specialists from several organizations, including the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the German Council on Foreign Relations, to work on ways to inform young people about international job options and prepare them for such careers.

"It begins with languages and also a general knowledge of the outside world," said Professor Karl Kaiser with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "We have many university graduates who know their specific fields very well, but have no idea what's going on out there in the world."

Change needed in the system

The Berliner Initiative is calling for German schools and universities to design their curricula with a more international focus. It is also asking that companies change their policies so that an employee who decided to go to work for an international organization for a few years won't face financial or professional disadvantages. The group would like to see placement procedures for German specialists improved and brought up to the standards of some other countries, such as Britain.

"The Brits do it very well. Their 'reserve system' means that people who are well qualified for the international track are put in a pool and then are delegated out into careers in international organizations," Kaiser said.

There are signs of improvement. Databanks and "personnel pools" have been set up in Germany to simplify the placement process and make overseas jobs more attractive.

Claudia Lässing is among the optimists who expects to see more Germans at places like the UN in the future. She has already noticed that the number of applications from Germans for positions opening up in 2004 has increased over the last year. It doesn't really surprise her, since she considers the UN a great place to work, with excellent career advancement possibilities. "A good example is, of course, Kofi Annan," she said. "He started as a P2, our entry-level position, and now he's the secretary-general."

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